The Challenge in Switching Back to Outlook after Two Years on Gmail

VentureBeat is one of my favorite blogs – I read just about every post as soon as it comes out. I spend a lot of time thinking about email and I spend a lot of time reading, writing, and reacting to email. So when I saw this article entitled “Four Startups Ready to Change the Face of Email” I was really intrigued.
For the past week or so I have been trying to switch back to Outlook from Gmail. I’ve been on Gmail for work for about two years and I wanted to see how painful the transition would be. A few quick blurbs on what I like about Gmail:

  • The interface is quick – The Gmail interface is really snappy. It loads quickly and refreshes automatically. As is the case with most Google products, speed is clearly a high priority and it works really well.
  • I can process/triage messages very quickly – Once you master the key keyboard shortcuts (j,k,x,n, and p are the crucial keyboard shortcuts to master in my opinion), it’s really easy to blast through a bunch of messages in your inbox and quickly triage them or otherwise mark them for future reading/evaluation.
  • Search trumps foldering once you make the big leap – I am an active labeler in Gmail, but I’ve gotten lazy/sloppy with some of my labels over timer. The key “ah ha” moment in most Gmail user’s evolution is the moment in which the light bulb goes off and you realize that search is a more powerful navigation paradigm for email than foldering. It’s a leap of faith until you make the change.

One thing worth noting about the three things that I like most about Gmail – they only really matter if you are in a position where you need to manage (read, write, retrieve, and share) large amounts of email. If you don’t get a lot of email, most of these features and benefits don’t buy you much. In fact, you probably would not even bother mastering these things if you are not a power emailer.

The subject of to whom Gmail-like interfaces appeal is a subject for its own post. For the purposes of this post, we’ll just say that things like Gmail are designed for expert power users and have a high bar to adoption. However, once you adopt, it’s hard to switch.
After trying to go back to Outlook as my every day mail client, I’m finding it to be a very difficult adjustment. There are 3 things that stand out after a few days of non-Gmail email existence:

1. I miss keyboard shortcuts – a lot. After being out of the Outlook experience for over two years, I find the keyboard shortcuts to be a bit slow. Also, with the myriad number of formatting and presentation options that Outlook offers, it’s hard for me to actually remember all of the keyboard shortcuts at my disposal. The relatively short list of Gmail shortcuts that I can use really do the trick and allow me to get my work done quickly.

2. The Outlook client feels really slow. The time spent selecting messages, opening them, waiting for them to open, and then closing them and moving on to the next message just feels a lot slower in Outlook. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m less familiar with the interface or if there is something else at work. It just feels like it requires more keystrokes and work to get through my email using Outlook.

3. Working offline is not as big of a bang as I had thought originally. Now that I have a broadband access card for my laptop, there is relatively little time when I cannot be online if need be. Suddenly the ability to use my mail client offline is of less value as I find myself offline with declining frequency.

At the end of the day, I think that has big implications for folks who are building apps that plug into Outlook. Sure, not everyone in the world who uses email will switch from Outlook to Gmail. However, I know a lot of power email users who are moving away from Outlook and adopting Gmail. Given that so many of these interesting email products target power users, I am curious to hear how they will deliver their solutions to the (relatively) closed environments that we find in webmail. Greasemonkey scripts? Biz dev deals to get access to the platform? Lobbying hard for more opennes and APIs? I’m sure they’re all thinking about this stuff and what it means for their businesses.

As always, comments are welcome.

  • Hello Charles,

    I’m very surprised to see you migrating back. I don’t use Gmail although a lot of my employees do.

    I still swear by Eudora, as it is totally customisable and can do anything under the sun, once you really learn it.

    The sad thing is I am on an Intel Mac and Eudora 6.3.4 (the last edition) is PPC (Power PC) and Carbon. Already, the spring is out of her step and speed is no longer what it was on a native processor.

    Where to move to? Another desktop client likely.