Embracing the cloud

I’m fond of Google’s services, finding them well realised and powerful. I’ve a few different email accounts including a gmail one but I’d rarely bothered to use it. In fact, at home, I rarely used email at all.

By contrast I use Google Reader daily. I think RSS is a great way to collect information that interests me and had used a number of desktop and web-based clients until Google Reader came along and became my favourite. The most convenient aspect of it, for me, being the J and K next/previous article navigation.

I realised that I’ve used Google Reader for a long time and never felt a deficit of functionality or performance simply because it was a web-based application. It’s focus was on handling information delivered by the internet so it was a good fit anyway.

I’d recently installed Windows 7 on my aging PC and, being a new operating system, it was more demanding than my previous one. I considered how I might lighten the load of common tasks on my PC and decided that migrating my email from desktop client to a web-based app was worth investigating.

Searching the internet showed up little information about actually migrating existing and establised email accounts and message stores to GMail. I specifically wanted:

  • To transfer all my archived emails to the new client
  • To retain my email identities rather than change to a new address. The client should be transparent to anyone reading my emails.

The first was relatively simple to accomplish. My emails were organised in folders. In spite of having years and years worth of emails I tended to be fairly merciless with deleting stuff and archiving only the most important of old emails.

GMail uses labels rather than folders. Superficially, users can have labels behave like folders – with a list of labels on one side of the client. They click on a label title and the view changes to show all emails with that label assigned to them. The handy thing about labels is that a single email can have multiple labels. Sometimes categorising information can be tricky. Does it belong in “Personal” or “Important”? With a folder system you tend to have to choose one or the other – or, at worst, duplicate the email and put a copy in each folder. With labels the email can be both “Personal” and “Important” and will appear in each label view and yet still only exist as a single email.

Using GMail’s IMAP support I simply connected my desktop client to my GMail account and set about recreating the folder structure in my GMail account using labels. After that, it was simply a case of dragging and dropping the contents of one folder to its corresponding label in my GMail account and the emails were moved over to GMail.

So far, so good.

The fussier part of me wanted my original email address such as fred@123.com to stay as it was rather than change to fred@gmail.com and have to have all my email contacts know there’d been a change in my address. After all, I wasn’t changing email accounts, I was just changing email clients.

I actually over-complicated the process. I went to my mail server and set up some rules for auto-forwarding emails to my gmail account. My only concern with forwarding emails is that, as I’m sure you know, when you reply to a forwarded email you tend to reply to the person who forwarded the email, not the original author. I didn’t want to find myself replying to my email server that had forwarded each email to GMail.

Fortunately, this was taken care of automagically. Unfortunately not all my emails were getting forwarded and, in some cases, some were being forwarded and copies of the originals were left on the original mail server. Odd.

The simple solution was the most effective: leave my email server settings as they were and simply have GMail check those other email accounts from its own end, collect the mail and delete the originals. Or in other words ‘pull’ the emails to Gmail rather than have my email server ‘push’ them.  This worked a treat with the only drawback being that I couldn’t tell Gmail how frequently to check for new emails – although I can tell it to ‘check now’.

Gmail even catered for some other finicky stuff I wanted. I have a serious and a casual email address. When I reply using my serious account I use my proper name in the email address. When I reply using my casual account I use “Koffdrop” in the email address. You can tell GMail to automatically adopt the identity you want to reply as based on the account the original email came through. If I hit “reply” to an email on my serious account, my serious identity is used as a result. For maximum flexibility, GMail allows the user to change identities during email composition too.

About a month or so in to my GMail home and I have to say that all is good. I’d only had a couple of niggles I wanted addressed. One was the inability to use delivery receipts on emails. The other was setting up a default font style.

The latter has actually been addressed very recently. The former isn’t a major issue for domestic email use. I relied upon it heavily in some jobs when I’d need to cover my ass or know for certain that someone had got my message. It’s unlikely that email receipts will make it into GMail.

I’ve been really pleased with how GMail has met my requirements. Like Reader, I don’t feel I’m suffering a lack of functionality because I’m not using a ‘full’ desktop client. There’s the usual advantages of web-based email to be had and, on top of that, GMail’s spam handling and excellent email searching functions to be had too. In addition to that, my homepage now points to a customised iGoogle page rather than Google itself which offers me the ability to preview my inbox. These days I tend to feel I have a web-client open more than an email-client so now I have one program performing both functions for me.

It’s been a bit of a learning experience for me. I still don’t know why my email forwarding on my mail server was patchy and that irks me somewhat. All in all, I am very happy with how things have turned out. I’ve put my faith in Google – trusting that they won’t disappear overnight, lose my data or compromise it. Perhaps I’m biased in their favour but my experiences with their services have, so far, always been positive.

If you use a web-based email or migrated from computer to web-based email (or the other way around) do you have any tips or stories to tell. What, if anything, would reverse your decision?

2 Responses

  1. Tim December 5, 2009 / 4:15 pm

    Hey Phil,

    I actually changed the MX records for meols.com to point to Google’s mail servers, and set up Google Apps. Now, I go to mail.meols.com for webmail (or use IMAP/POP3/Exchange to check on other devices). You also get a your-domain-branded version of Google Docs / Calendar / etc (you can customise the appearing of the login screens, etc). It basically lets Google take over email for your domain, so no forwarding necessary. Although it takes a way a little control from you, if your forwarding was patchy previously, shouldn’t be a big concern.

    I haven’t had a lost email in 3 years, and just hit “archive” on everything rather than delete. The (pretty awesome) search makes finding anything you’ve ever been sent really easy, and the spam filter is the best performing I’ve seen.


  2. Koffdrop December 5, 2009 / 8:57 pm

    Hey Tim, how was Liverpool? 🙂

    I considered investigating the Google Apps option. I already use other Google services such as Calendar and Docs. In fact, I have multiple calendars and keep some shared data with my family across them all.

    I’m not sure whether I really need to change over to Google Apps just yet. I don’t really need a unified hub for these things just yet. Also, between me and my wife there’s actually quite a lot of email accounts (some reserved for spam-bait) that I’m not sure I can be bothered to mess around with any further.

    Perhaps I just need to experiment with it and see how it actually goes. Although, right now, I’m pretty content with how things are.

    Keep in touch!

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