Google unveiled a redesigned and retooled Gmail and Contacts this week. While a vocal minority is objecting to the update on the social networks, most users seem to like the changes.
I think the move is a strategically brilliant one for Google, and I'll tell you why in a minute. First, let's take a look at the changes.
On the main Gmail interface, Contacts and Tasks have been promoted to the coveted upper left corner, where the Inbox link used to be. A big "Compose mail" button replaces the old link, and now sits between the Mail, Contacts and Tasks links and the rest -- Inbox now tops the list of secondary items, followed by "Buzz," Sent Mail" and the rest.
Google also tightened up the header area, and made more space for the list of messages.
The redesign also affected Contacts, which has been changed a lot more than Gmail itself. Contacts now looks and feels more like Gmail, with a list of people in alphabetical order, and as much of each contact's data as Google could squeeze into the space to the right.
Contacts now has custom labels for phone numbers, undo and "structured name fields," which means first, middle and last names each in its own box. Contacts are auto-saved, and changes can be reversed with a new "undo" feature.
Oddly, when you open Contacts from Google Voice, you see the old-and-busted Google Contacts, rather than the new hotness.
Why the changes are brilliant
The only thing more important to a redesign than fixing what's broken is to not fix what isn't broken. All the Gmail changes Google rolled out today were clear improvements. The company showed enormous restraint in leaving 99% of Gmail's functionality exactly as it was before.
On the other hand, Contacts was completely broken and inadequate before, and so deep repair was both called for and delivered upon.
The changes benefit users, and that's always a good thing. But here's how they benefit Google.
The two most important things Google changed were 1) bringing enormous awareness and accessibility to Contacts; and 2) making Contacts something really appealing to use.
These are important for Google because the address book is a major battlefield where Google will fight for the future of the Internet against the likes of Facebook, Apple and Microsoft.
What is an address book, anyway? It's the people you know. It's your "social network."
Google is planning to roll out a Google Me social network sometime very soon. The best thing Google could now do is convert all Gmail users to heavy and dedicated Contacts users. It should then automatically offer up all contacts as "Friends" on the new social network (giving users a convenient way to say, "no, don't add to social network").
Making Contacts great, and essentially "advertising" its existence every time people use Gmail is a step in that direction.
Are you using Google Contacts? If so, what do YOU think of the new design?