Gmail as a Facade

When you create a new account, Gmail is blazingly fast. For most users, it stays that way forever. But for a minority of heavy users, Gmail gradually degrades towards slower and more painful speeds. Eventually doing simple tasks like sending an email or archiving a chain is downright glacial. Until a few weeks ago, glacial Gmail was part of my life.

The proximate cause of slowness is mailbox size. The alluring promise Google made when they first launched Gmail–that you never again have to delete any message–is not a reality. If a frequent emailer stops deleting messages, she’ll end up with a slow-as-hell mail app. I spent hours deleting as much of my inbox as I could, particularly emails with large attachements, but was still only able to get down to 11GB (I send a lot of email) [1].

I love Gmail as a mail app. Love the interface, love the shortcuts, love the filters, and love the fact that you can mod it with Boomerang [2]. As the iPhone is to phones, Gmail is to mail apps–ever since it launched, everyone else has tried to not-so-subtly replicate it. The problem is, when you saddle a Gmail account with 11GB of history, everything that makes it great becomes painful to use.

So, in a moment of desperation, I tried separating “Gmail the app” from “Gmail the database of messages.” I did the following:

  1. Created a new Gmail account.
  2. Changed the settings in my primary personal and business addresses to forward all messages to the new gmail address, but to keep copies in the original inboxes.
  3. Configured the new account to send mail from the address of my old acount.

Instantly, Gmail became a delight to use. Everything I asked it to do happened instantly. No more twenty second delays between clicking the “sent” link and actually seeing my sent messages. I felt dramatically more productive.

A few potential headaches, and ways to avoid them #

Searching old mail #

My new inbox obviously doesn’t have the history of my old inbox, so I cannot search for old conversations within it. This hasn’t been nearly as painful as one might think; I keep an instance of the old inbox open in a separate browser and use it for searching email history [3]. Whereas searching Gmail was previously synchronous and blocking, it’s now asynchronous, so I can search while still performing other email tasks in my primary window.

Filters and labels #

Gmail allows you to export and then import all of your filters in batch. This used to be a Labs feature but seems to now be a Gmail default. I decided that my old account was suffering from label bloat, so I didn’t re-implement all my old labels; I’ve been adding the labels back occasionally as it has become necessary [4].

Contacts #

Gmail has a nice feature that automatically creates contacts for autocomplete purposes whenever you email someone. Unless you’ve explicitly turned this off (and why would you do that?) you can export the contacts from your old account and then import them into the new account. The to field in the new account will then autocomplete for everyone you’ve ever emailed.

A future of facades #

This isn’t a breaking change; you can always go back. If you’re considering using Gmail as a facade, there’s little downside to giving it a shot. All messages remain in your original account(s), so you can revert to your old, slugglish ways at any point.

Unless Google solves Gmail’s speed problem, some day soon I’ll decide my new account has slowed down. But this time I won’t stress! Instead, I’ll just create a new facade account.

Thanks to Russ D'Souza for being a guinea pig, as well as making several additions to this post.

[1] There are also other, secondary, causes of slowness besides email size. I tried everything I could find online, and while some tips helped incrementally, nothing was close to sufficient.

[2] For me, Boomerang is the killer app for the gmail “platform.” Till Boomerang functionality is available on other mail apps, I’ll never be able to use anything else.

[3] Another alternative would be to do a POP download of all my mail history into a desktop app, like Sparrow. I actually tried this, but was only able to get partial downloads of my account, perhaps due to its size.

[4] Another potential drawback is a lack of label continuity. e.g. if I label all travel-related emails with a `travel` label, then I can no longer see all travel-related emails in a single place, as labeled emails are split between inboxes. in practice, this hasn’t bothered me–in the rare cases when I need to see a full history of messages with a certain label, I just pull up both mailbox instances at the same time.


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