Google’s decision to activate (and turn on by default) a “feature” that allows anyone to send you email via Google Plus has sparked some controversy.
The problem with the free email services most of us use is that virtually all of them are offered provided by companies whose main interests aren’t email. In other words, Google, Microsoft, and Apple all offer “free” email in order to get you into their ecosystems. Gmail exists so Google can sell your eyeballs to advertisers. Like all of Apple’s software, iCloud exists so Apple can control every aspect of an iOS or Mac user’s experience.1 Hotmail and Outlook.com (and whatever other crap Microsoft is doing these days) exist so that Microsoft can keep more people reliant on Office and Windows (and whatever other crap Microsoft is doing these days).
And that’s the thing: Their goal isn’t to create awesome email that meets users’ needs. Sure, insofar as creating awesome email helps get more people into their ecosystem, then I suppose creating an awesome email system is part of what they do. But don’t ever forget that they have a bigger goal in mind. When it comes right down to it, Google is obsessed with getting people into Google+, and they don’t even blink when prioritizing their needs (integration with their social network) over most users’ (the ability to receive messages only from those who’ve received my email address from me).2
We can bitch and complain all we want, but here’s the thing: As long as we use email that’s provided by someone who sees email as a means to achieving their own (non-email related) goals, then this is going to keep happening. That’s the cost of “free” email.
I want a service that provides email that’s clean, elegant, and easy-to-use. I want it to be private, secure, and safe. I want it to be standards-based, by which I mean I want it to work well with my existing devices and systems as well as with the ones that I don’t have or that don’t exist yet. And I want as much control as possible. I want control over my privacy settings, over the interface, over the implementation of new features, over… everything.
And for that, I’d gladly pay a few bucks a month. Or even ten.
Steve Jobs once said, “I’ve always wanted to own and control the primary technology in everything we do.” Over the years, Apple loosened up a little as Jobs and Co. realized that they could gain more by giving users a little bit more control. But it’s pretty clear that the brain trust in Cupertino is still pretty committed to the idea that the only way you can guarantee users a product that “just works” is to maintain as much control as possible over every aspect of both hardware and software (including cloud-based software and services). And since consumers seem to like products that “just work” (Lord knows I do), Apple makes a lot of money as a result of this formula. (back to footnote in text)
Marco Arment says it best:
Google’s leadership, threatened by the attention and advertising relevance of Facebook, is betting the company on Google+ at all costs.
Google+ adoption and usage is not meeting their expectations. Facebook continues to dominate. It’s not working. They’re desperate.
Google will continue to sell out and potentially ruin its other properties to juice Google+ usage. These efforts haven’t worked very well: they juice the numbers just enough that Google will keep doing this, yet will keep needing to do more.
I don’t like Google+ very much, and I have no interest in being dragged into using it. Gmail belongs to Google, and if Google wants to build Gmail and Google+ into each other, then that’s Google’s prerogative. And finding a new email provider is my prerogative. And honestly: As long as Google’s behavior doesn’t have a noticeable effect on how many people use Gmail (and/or how much they use it), then they have no reason to stop. (back to footnote in text)