Google improves Gmail contacts manager

It's the component of the webmail service that users dislike the most

Google will roll out on Tuesday enhancements to Gmail's contacts manager, which the company acknowledges has been traditionally the webmail service's weakest link.

Google is confident that the improvements will fix the Gmail contacts manager's damaged reputation and prompt users to give it another chance. The company followed users' feedback when deciding what changes to make.

"The good news is that while many of you haven't been too happy with Contacts, you've also told us what we could do to make it better," wrote Benjamin Grol, a Google product manager, in a blog statement Google provided to IDG News Service prior to its posting. Google later removed this line from the statement, which it posted on the official Gmail blog.

While users of individual Gmail accounts will see the new contacts manager today, people who use Gmail as part of Google Apps will have to wait longer. The improvements will be added to that hosted collaboration and communications suite at a later, unspecified date.

This is unfortunate, according to an analyst. "While it is great that Google is responding to user requests, it is disappointing that the much-needed improvements to the contacts manager don’t yet apply to Google Apps customers -- enterprise users of Google Apps often cite contacts as something they would like to see improved," said Gartner analyst Matt Cain via e-mail.

New features users will find in Gmail's contacts manager include keyboard shortcuts, automatic saving, the ability to sort by last name and an undo option. Also new are a bigger field for notes and what Google calls "structured name fields" for items like people's titles and suffixes.

A tweak to Gmail's layout now simplifies accessing both the contacts and tasks managers, which have been placed more prominently on the top left corner of the interface.

The improvements to the contacts manager will help Gmail better compete against Microsoft's Outlook in the workplace market, since the Microsoft product has very good contact management tools, said analyst Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research.

"I think Google could have benefited users by doing this earlier, but as Gmail moves more into the business space, this is the type of thing they will have to keep doing," Osterman said via e-mail.

Although Outlook and Microsoft Exchange will remain the dominant e-mail platform in the business space over the next several years, Gmail's use is growing, he said. Osterman Research completed a study last week among mid-size and large organizations in North America that shows that penetration of Google Apps in that market will increase from 0.9 percent in 2010 to 3.7 percent in 2012.

"It's still a small share given that Google's market so far has been primarily in the small business space, but this data shows that their penetration in the mid-size and enterprise market is growing," Osterman said.

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