Google has taken a decisive lead in creative Ajax-based applications, but challengers abound. We review 20 other online apps to see how they stack up against Google's offerings.
The Winner: Gmail
Google wins again, this time in the category of Ajax-based e-mail. This will not come as a surprise to any Gmail user -- the service has gotten plaudits from a variety of sources, and I've got a lot of friends who now have Gmail e-mail addresses.
Gmail rivals many desktop e-mail applications in usefulness. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.
One reason Gmail has drawn so much favorable attention is that it is one of the few online e-mail services around that deviates from the usual formula. To begin with, Gmail adopted a threaded approach, where e-mails with the same senders/recipients and subject headers are presented together rather than as separate e-mails. While this approach is available in some desktop e-mail packages -- Lotus Notes, for example, has an option for threaded conversations -- Gmail has taken it as its default. I subscribe to at least one very active listserv, and this approach created for me a sense of a conversation that actually changed the way I interacted with the members of the list.
Another major difference is Gmail's use of labels rather than folders to help users organize their e-mail. As someone who depends on folders to try to track her vast store of e-mails, I was doubtful how comfortable I'd be with this approach, but I got used to it really fast. You create labels for your categories (for example, "Family," "Workgroup," "Printer News"), which appear on a list on the side of your screen; click on a label and your list will contain only those e-mail messages that bear the label. And you don't have to manually label your e-mail; you can have incoming e-mail filtered for a variety of factors and labeled automatically.
In fact, Gmail has a number of interesting features to encourage people to use it as a central place to receive and send e-mail. For example, you can have your outgoing Gmail messages display a different e-mail address (handy if, like me, you occasionally forward your own e-mail to Gmail to make it easier to access from another computer), you can use it as a POP-enabled mail server -- and, of course, you can use Google's search engine to search through your e-mails.
That, and 2.5GB of storage space, is what makes Gmail the winner in this category, hands-down.
The Runner-Up: Yahoo Mail
Yahoo Mail went to an Ajax-based format only recently (and users have a choice of this or the original format). While there is nothing particularly revolutionary about its approach -- understandable, since Yahoo has a large existing user-base that is used to the more traditional interface -- it has absorbed the new technology well. (Except, of course, for the fact that Yahoo was the target for one of the Yamanner worm, one of the first to target Ajax sites.)
Yahoo Mail has made a good transition to an Ajax-based format. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.
Yahoo Mail uses the traditional folder method of organization; with Ajax, you can now use drag-and-drop to move e-mails. A nice addition is the use of tabbed pages, so that you can have several e-mails open at once and easily go from one to the other. The interface is more advertising-heavy than Google's, and it has a decent, if not overwhelming, set of features such as filters and vacation responses. Yahoo Mail offers only 1GB of storage space compared to Gmail's 2.5GB.
AOL Mail: If you want to see if your old AOL e-mail address still works, you may want to check out AOL's new Web interface. It very much resembles Yahoo's: folders on the left, listing in the center, and ads wherever they can put them. You get 2GB of storage space and, if you're a long-time member, all the spam you can eat. (Click here for image.)
Windows Live Mail: Microsoft has provided its new e-mail service with a nicely simple interface (although leaving space for the usual advertising) and a lot of security -- any e-mail that comes from a sender who is not on your Allowed Senders or Contacts list generates a warning, and all attachments, images, and links are blocked until you say otherwise. You get 2GB of space and a few features, although they can be hard to find -- filters, for example, are found by clicking Options and then looking for the "Mail and junk e-mail" link. Well, it's still a work in progress. (Click here for image.)
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