Google Does the Impossible

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At first blush, the latest experimental feature in Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Gmail sounds like a big joke. Maybe it's a twist on that old "forward this email to all your friends and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) will pay you $245 per message" hoax? But no, Google is dead serious.

Enable a "lab" feature and get the ability to kill ill-conceived emails before they reach their targets. It's not a fundamental change to how email servers work, nor is it a magical power that reaches back across time and space to save you from embarrassment. Rather, this is a panic button that gives you about five seconds to regret sending that mail. Think of it as a TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO  ) for your outbox, with a very small hard drive.

Because there's no actual magic involved, this may sound like small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. And it is. But it's just another example of how Google is willing to try new things, machine-gun style, just to see what people actually want. Adding this functionality to Microsoft Outlook would have required months of internal testing and focus groups. Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) Mail hasn't changed much since, oh, the 20th century, other than a snappier AJAX interface. I suspect that there's "management by committee" going on among the Yahooligans, too.

That's just not how Google rolls. Throw a whole batch of mashed potatoes on the wall and keep the parts that stick. This happens in full public view, over and over again. Gmail itself is still tagged as "beta" software despite a huge user base and years of operating history. But taking the beta tag off would hardly be the end of all experimental spirit -- that's what the opt-in Gmail Labs are for.

This allows Google to develop its software faster than the competition, with its finger always on the pulse of the user community. Let me try a new idea, and I'll tell you if it doesn't work -- and how you could fix it. Gmail might be the largest feature-testing sandbox in the world today.

Some features sink, others float, and a few soar. The highfliers create happy, loyal Googlers who insulate the company's innovation pipeline for years to come. Make me happy once, and I might forgive a few horrible missteps. As long as Google doesn't lose that adventurous spirit -- across the entire business -- I believe that the company will continue to out-innovate and outgrow the competition.

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings or a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2009, at 2:47 PM, sgerlach01 wrote:

    Outlook already includes the feature you suggest. In Outlook 2007 (not sure in 2003), select "Rules and Alerts" from the Tools menu. Click "New Rule." Choose "Check messages after sending." Have the rule apply to all sent messages by NOT selecting any of the conditional checkboxes. On the "What do you want to do with the message?" dialog, click the last option, "defer delivery by a number of minutes." This rule allows the user to customize a sanity-check period before outgoing mail is handed off to the server for sending. Queued mail appears in the Outbox folder and can be deleted or edited.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2009, at 3:09 PM, TMFMitten wrote:

    AOL used to have this functionality, too, or at least something like it. When I was an AOLer years ago, you could unsend any e-mail to another AOLer, provided the other person hadn't read the message yet. I don't know whether that's changed, or even whether Google's technology is different. Sounds pretty cool, though ...

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2009, at 8:27 AM, robpotter wrote:

    Furthermore...Earlier versions of both MS-Outlook (with Exchange Server) and Lotus 1-2-3 allow the user to recall a message already sent to the recipient. Lotus 1-2-3 will delete the message from recipient mailboxes even if already opened viewed, but MS Outlook will only delete from recipient mailboxes only if unopened.

    I appended the Outlook 2007 Help description.


    Recall or replace a message after it is sent

    This feature requires you to use a Microsoft Exchange Server 2000, Exchange Server 2003, or Exchange Server 2007 account. Most home and personal accounts do not use Microsoft Exchange. For more information about Microsoft Exchange accounts and how to determine which version of Exchange your account connects to, see the links in the See Also section.

    The recipient of the e-mail message that you want to recall must also be using an Exchange account. You cannot recall a message sent, for example, to someone's personal Internet service provider (ISP) (ISP: A business that provides access to the Internet for such things as electronic mail, chat rooms, or use of the World Wide Web. Some ISPs are multinational, offering access in many locations, while others are limited to a specific region.) POP3 (POP3: A common protocol that is used to retrieve e-mail messages from an Internet e-mail server.) e-mail account.

    E-mail is a fast way to communicate with your co-workers, schedule meetings, and share documents. However, sometimes you might forget to attach a file or send certain information, only to realize after clicking Send that you need to make a change.

    In this article


    Recall and replace a message

    Will my recall be successful?


    Recall and replace a message

    You send an e-mail message, asking your co-workers to review the sales figures for this year, but you forget to attach the sales figures. After you send the message, your Inbox is flooded with messages that ask "What attachment?", "I didn't get the attachment!", or "Can you resend the attachment?"

    How can you undo your error? You can recall the original message and then resend it with the missing attachment. For all of your co-workers who haven't opened the message yet, you can perform an e-mail sleight of hand and replace the original message with another one that contains the attachment.

    Recall and replace a message

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