Someone At Google Reads Joel

A little while back, Gmail, the webmail service to which all others must be compared, started offering email forwarding. Several people were a bit confused about this – a common cry was “hang on – how does this support their advertising business model?” After all, it stands to reason – if people aren’t viewing your pages, you aren’t making any money.

The answer, is that someone at Google reads Joel on Software (or, alternatively, they are as smart as he is and figured it out for themselves, which I suppose can’t be discounted ;-). Way back in 2000, he wrote Strategy Letter III: Let Me Go Back!, which is also reprinted in his book (which is where I read it). The first point of the letter is that to make people switch to your product, you need to eliminate barriers to entry. So far, so fairly obvious. However, near the bottom, he makes a far more interesting point, which is this: “you can get more customers by eliminating the barriers which prevent people switching away from your product”.

So how does that work? Rather than attempt to explain myself, I’ll quote. Amazingly, he even uses email as an example:

Let’s take a more current example: ISPs, a highly competitive market. Something that virtually no ISP offers is the ability to get your email forwarded to another email address after you quit their service. This is small-minded thinking of the worst sort, and I’m pretty surprised nobody has figured it out. If you’re a small ISP trying to get people to switch, they are going to be worrying about the biggest barrier: telling all their friends their new email address. So they won’t even want to try your service. If they do try it, they won’t tell their friends the new address for a while, just in case it doesn’t work out. Which means they won’t be getting much email at the new address, which means they won’t really be trying out the service and seeing how much better they like it. Lose-lose.

Now suppose one brave ISP would make the following promise: “Try us. If you don’t like us, we’ll keep your email address functioning, and we’ll forward your email for free to any other ISP. For life. Hop around from ISP to ISP as many times as you want, just let us know, and we’ll be your permanent forwarding service.”

Of course, the business managers would have fits. Why should we make it easy for customers to leave the service? That’s because they are short sighted. These are not your customers now. Try to lock them in before they become your customers, and you’ll just lock them out. But if you make an honest promise that it will be easy to back out of the service if they’re not happy, and suddenly you eliminate one more barrier to entry. And, as we learned, eliminating even a single barrier to entry can have a dramatic effect on conversions, and over time, when you knock down that last barrier to entry, people will start flooding in, and life will be good for a while. Until somebody does the same thing to you.

And that’s what Gmail is doing.

11 thoughts on “Someone At Google Reads Joel

  1. I figure that they think that their webmail interface is better – or will be better – than current offerings of client-side mail clients, and that the ability for access from any computer (not just your regular computer) will trump the advantages of POP3.

  2. Gmail is offering POP access because Hotmail has it as part of the paid version, except Gmail is offering it for free. Just another reason to switch to Gmail instead of paying Microsoft of the same service. And it also fits what is being dicussed here; it eliminates another barrier people may have in switching to Gmail.

  3. I was thinking about this philosophy the other day. This philosophy is actually a key to being a highly valuable, and retained employee/team member as well. If you don’t purposefully set out to ‘lock’ your manager into keeping you, he/she won’t tend feel resentful that you are on staff. This includes communicating well and proactively, don’t ‘knowledge-horde’, and share info/skills with team members. The ‘out’ you give them in not feeling ‘lock-in’ will be an asset. There are other implications and conditions in play as well, but that’s the short of it.

  4. That’s an excellent point Gerv, I’ve switched all my mail over to gmail. Even though I’ve set my reply-to address to my domain, some people will put my gmail address into their address book.

    With this feature, I’m safe. Google gets to sell my ‘eyeballs’ to their advertisers, I get a great email client which I can switch away from at any time.

    Win Win.

  5. The point about POP3 is a good one – that’s a different kettle of fish.

    It’s interesting that they offer POP and not IMAP. IMAP has two disadvantages (from their point of view) over POP. The first is that it’s resource-intensive – keeping IMAP connections over uses much more server resources than the “send me my messages” POP style. (This may well be why few free providers offer IMAP.) The second is that because IMAP leaves messages on the server, it can be used from anywhere without your messages getting stuck somewhere you are not, negating the usefulness of the webmail interface almost entirely.

    And just imagine how easy it would be to implement a high performance version of GmailFS, thereby using GMail as free disk space, if GMail had an IMAP interface…

  6. How easy is it to switch from Firefox and Thunderbird to Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, Safari and Mail or Konqueror and KMail? I wouldn’t know, of course.

  7. Greg: for Firefox, hard. We certainly haven’t written any migrate-away code. For Thunderbird, it depends if you use POP or IMAP. Obviously it’s a lot easier with IMAP.

  8. Well, nice points. But, the hidden assumption is that your product is actually better than the competitors. And truly believing that, at corporate level, is NOT that common.

  9. just a quick note on the POP3 access.

    You have the option (in the GMail settings) to archive all the mail you download to your email-program. This makes their web-interface even better than any email-program, because when you travel, you can use their interface to access any message you have ever recieved. And this is while still making use of the benefits from using POP3.
    This makes their offering a little easier to understand. (to me atleast)