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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.