Yesterday found me helping my cousin repair her computer for several hours and in the course of the repairs there were a number of applications that, though second nature to me, were not installed or used on her computer.

This got me to thinking about what basic applications I use, why I use them, how they make my life (or at least my online life) better or more efficient.

I figured if I was going to talk about these on this blog, I should start at the beginning. And the number one application that I use above all else (well, I guess not counting Windows itself) is GMail.

So what is GMail? Gmail is an email service.

“But I already have email” you say.

You probably do (I doubt you’d be reading this blog if you didn’t). There are a few reasons why I highly recommend using GMail over other email services.

Firstly, if you are using an application like Outlook or Thunderbird or Mac Mail (these are called POP clients) you have a few limitations; you can’t (easily) access your email remotely, and if your computer implodes on you, you lose everything contained therein. This means all downloaded emails, contacts, calendar, etc.

Secondly, I find GMail to be much more stable than services like Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail. GMail (at first glance) isn’t as “pretty” as those two other email services, but it more than makes up for it in functionality, integration and innovation. Though all three services I mentioned here are advertisement driven, I find the ads on GMail to be MUCH less intrusive (what the hell is with that panel on the right hand side of Yahoo! Mail eating up 1/5th of my screen space?) and I barely notice them.

Thirdly, GMail has done away with the folder system and replaced with with a label infrastructure. Though this can be quite jarring at first, it is immensely more efficient as an organizing method. If you are used to a folder based system, you will perhaps have a folder for, let’s say, Johnny. You get an email from Johnny and you move it from your inbox to the folder bearing his name. This works very well. Then you get an email from Johnny that is also sent to Mary. Do you put it in Johnny’s folder or Mary’s folder? With labels, you tag the email with a label for both “Johnny” and a label for “Mary” and then simple archive the message (this gets it out of your inbox). Then when you click on the label on the left for Johnny (where you would find your folders) you will see all messages tagged with “Johnny”. If you click on the label for Mary, you will see all messages tagged with “Mary”.

This is a very efficient way of organizing well… anything. You can think about it thus: imagine all of your mail is in a warehouse. It’s not organized at all; just a big pile of mail. You have a bunch of people that are VERY good at sorting through that mail; they have remembered where every single piece of mail is. By clicking on a label that says “Johnny” you are telling this team of people to go get you all the mail in the warehouse that has to do with “Johnny”.

Google themselves to a very good job of explaining labels here

My final reason for starting with GMail is that it gives you a Google Account. This gives you access to all kinds of other amazing things that Google comes up with. Off the top of my head, Google Talk, Google Phone (and Voice if you happen to live in the US), Calendar, Google Docs (on online Office suite of tools), Reader (which I will talk about in a later post), Picasa, and a tonne of amazing things from the lab.

If you already have email, no sweat, GMail can access outside accounts (I use it to access my,, email accounts) and import your contacts, calendar, etc from those locations.

There are many more reasons why GMail is a good place to get started with cleaning up your online life, and I would recommend starting there.