By Tina Gasperson on August 18, 2008 (9:00:00 AM)
Gmail, Google's popular Web mail application, is already full of useful features all on its own. But Firefox users can further customize Gmail with a variety of add-ons. Some only change the appearance, while others add functionality that makes Gmail more like a personal planner than just a plain old email application. Let's take a look at three Firefox add-ons for Gmail.
The first extension, GTDinbox, is a complicated collection of helpful and semi-helpful features. GTDinbox author Andy Mitchell claims his add-on is based on the action management method popularized by David Allen in his book Getting Things Done, which is based on the premise that writing down tasks frees a person to actually get those tasks done in a more efficient way. GTDinbox tries to help Gmail users become more efficient by grouping and labeling email communications as projects and task-oriented to-do lists.
Right from installation. GTDinbox runs unobtrusively, making only a few default changes in the appearance of your Gmail screen. One of the first things you'll notice is an option called "Compose Personal" under the original "Compose Mail" link. Click on Compose Personal and you'll see a composition screen sans the usual From: and To: entry boxes. It provides a quick way of sending an email message to yourself.
GTDinbox adds a category called "Statuses" to your Gmail labels and places new labels under Statuses called "Next Action," "Action," "Waiting On," "Some Day," and "Finished." All of your existing labels go under another GTDinbox-created category called "Miscellaneous." By using these categories and labels, the extension hopes to help you get your inbox empty. That idea is based on another productivity theory authored by Merlin Mann, called "Inbox Zero," which states that the fewer items in your inbox, the more productive you are. GTDinbox, Mitchell says, is highly compatible with Inbox Zero.
But how do you use all this to make it a worthwhile add-on? Mitchell has done a good job of explaining a typical process at the GTDinbox Web site. When a message arrives in your inbox, you have to determine if it represents an action that must be taken or a resource. Action messages should be acted on immediately, if possible; if not, you apply one of the status labels. You assign a project label to resource messages to group it with other related communication.
None of these GTDinbox features is unique, meaning that anyone could perform any of these functions with existing Gmail capabilities. GTDinbox simply makes it easier to get started with the GTD efficiency principles. The only unique feature of GTDinbox is the ability to right-click on any message and see a popup summary of its contents. It's unique, but not that useful, since if you left-click on the message you can see the whole thing.
Overall, GTDinbox does what it is supposed to do, and will probably save you a little time in terms of getting your email organized, but it's nothing even the greenest Gmail newb couldn't do for herself.
A less complicated but more useful add-on is Gmail Manager, which helps you keep multiple Gmail accounts straight. To get started, register your Gmail accounts after installing Gmail Manager by selecting Tools -> Addons -> Gmail Manager from the Firefox menu, then click the Options button and add each Gmail account that you want Gmail Manager to keep track of.
The extension places a small icon in the lower right corner of the Firefox browser window. You can right-click on the icon and choose which Gmail account you'd like information for. Gmail Manager logs in to that account and gives you a small popup of statistics that shows the number of new messages in the inbox and in labels, with a small preview of each new message. This makes it easy for the "over the shoulder" email checkers (such as your spouse or children) to quickly check for new messages without disrupting your other work too much. Gmail Manager can also notify you when new messages arrive.
This add-on's only drawback seems to be a lag time between the actual arrival of email in my Gmail inbox and when Gmail Manager reports that to me — sometimes a delay of several minutes. In spite of that one flaw, Gmail Manager is now a must-have for my household, if only because it keeps the compulsive email checkers at bay so I can get my work done.
Last, and tiniest, is dragdropupload. This little add-on is the simplest of the three, but for me the most likely to stay added to my copy of Firefox. Instead of browsing for the file you want to attach to a message, dragdropupload lets you drag and drop the file's icon or file name onto the entry bar. This works best if you keep a window open for the directory in which most of your documents and other files reside. There are no options or settings to configure with this add-on — simply install it and you're ready to save time, keystrokes, and mouseclicks.
There you have it: three add-ons for Firefox that make Gmail more useful, ranging from full-featured to simple goodness. All I need now is a Gmail add-on that will take dictation.