Folders are Dead

It’s 1984 all over again.

Gmail is the future.

It’s no understatement to say that all Internet eyes are on Google, and in particular, its new Gmail service. Just this week, when one random Google engineer set his beer down on the wrong key and gave folks a terabyte worth of storage (that’s a thousand times the advertised gigabyte, which is allegedly enough to hold all the e-mail you’d ever want to store), the Web press had a collective heart attack.

The point is: Gmail could be the beachhead through which Google will wipe out the last remaining Web portals. You know, small fries like Yahoo! and MSN. This probably seems like a ludicrous idea to people who don’t remember Alta Vista, HotBot, Lycos, and all those other search engines people used to use. If Google delivers on Gmail the way they have on basically everything they’ve delivered before, then there will be good reason for Jerry Yang to be quaking in his boots.

(This, of course, assumes that Gmail won’t get outlawed before it even hits the ground. Read that sentence again. Outlawed. This is how big this stuff is.)

I lucked into an invitation to Gmail’s beta program a few days ago. You ought to read the rest of this piece with a furrowed, mildly dubious forehead, because I’ve been goofing around with it, not using it for real. That’s because right now, there’s no way to transport e-mail off Gmail to a file on your hard drive, and I do not like the idea of keeping my e-mail in a place I can’t get it out of. You have to figure that this is going to be added sometimes before the grand opening happens, so don’t let that put you off your feed.

Let’s set aside the privacy concerns that everyone has been harping on for the moment. If you think about it, entrusting your e-mail to Google is no different from entrusting it to Microsoft, or AOL, or whatever other company or organization you happen to get your e-mail from. The reality of the Internet today ensures that at some point, every e-mail you send is at least skimmed over by a machine.

Spam. Last I heard, it constitutes one-third of all e-mail sent. I can’t find any estimates on the number of e-mail messages people worldwide send in, say, a week, but it’s got to be a truly moby number. To keep things at least moderately chill, e-mail providers have to give stopping spam the old college try. How do you tell if a message is spam? You have to look at it.

I’m not really sure how I feel about Gmail’s automatically context-sensitive ads. Google’s response to the controversy has mostly been “Don’t worry, we’re the good guys,” which is exactly the kind of hubris that will get you burned on the Internet.

Then again, they are the good guys, if you look at it from a strictly technical point of view. The killer idea: No more folders.

It’s a statement the same way that leaving the arrow keys off the first Macintosh keyboard was. Where we’re going, we don’t need arrow keys; we’ve got a mouse. We don’t need folders; we’ve got search.

All e-mail you receive in Gmail lives in one big pool. You have an inbox, but it’s an evolutionary vestige of the old way of doing things. It’s not a separate container — it’s just a list of the e-mail you happen to have received recently. When you stop caring about an e-mail, you select it and click the Archive button. It disappears from your inbox, but it’s still there if you need it.

You can delete messages permanently, but it takes more effort.

The cool part is when you need to find an e-mail you stopped caring about before. The way I do it, I open the folder I think I filed it under, and depending on how I think it’ll be easier to locate it, I sort by date or person, then page through the mess, looking for anything that rings a bell.

I apologize for writing that last sentence. It was really boring, wasn’t it? Gmail would earn the respect of Strunk and White: You type in what you’re looking for, be it a person, set of words, or range of dates. Google then takes 0.27 seconds to show all the e-mails that match.

In effect, you’re getting an infinite number of folders. You can have a folder that shows every e-mail from your mother that doesn’t ask when you’re planning on settling down, every e-mail you sent your boyfriend while you were in Africa, or all the e-mails that he sent you right before you broke up.

I honestly think this is a big deal, but maybe that’s because I lost a very important e-mail recently, to wit: the article that was to appear here last week. It should’ve been in my editing folder, but I checked three times and couldn’t find it. Maybe I put it into my general Crunchable folder? Or in the friends folder? The guy who wrote it is my friend, after all. And sometimes when I try to put something in my friends folder, I miss and toss it into family.

The point is: Should you have to organize your e-mail? Why should you have to, when a computer can do it so much more flexibly and usefully instead? Why stop at e-mail? Why not have everything — all your letters to Grandma, all the budgets you kept back when money was tight, all your photos, all your documents from work — indexed so you can easily find exactly what you want without having to sweat anything?

This is not a bullshit proposition. Microsoft wants to make it happen with the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, that is slated to arrive somewhere around 2006. The indexing software will be called WinFS.

I think that the majority of people out there — the people who use computers without understanding much of anything about how they work beyond what should be plugged into what — will go for this in an instant. It makes things easier, so why not?

But are you giving up anything by having a well-engineered program sort your information, your stories, your letters, for you? Assuming for the moment that it isn’t going to do anything evil with that information — that’s a whole other argument.

But doesn’t the way information is organized change how you view it? Isn’t that the whole point of making a scrapbook? It may be worthwhile to know that you were born at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday, but isn’t it more important to see the curls of your mother’s handwriting — that ineffable sense of her, the woman who didn’t know you yet but believed in you anyway, the woman who loved you before you even spoke a word? None of it is written down, none of it visible to a mechanistic sort of understanding, but it’s there.

It’s a small thing, but it may be important.

Folders will die. There’s no doubt in my mind. As surely as windows and mouse pointers sprouted up over text terminals. It will let us think less about how our information is stored and more about what it says — but still, but still …

Article © 2004 by Chris Klimas