GMail Alerts in Google Chrome

Google has recently rolled out a new feature in GMail and Google Chrome which took me by surprise. If you use Chome and GMail (or Google Apps Mail) you may have seen a notification similar to this in your e-mail.

Enabling the notifications brings a feature to online GMail that regular e-mail and chat programs have taken for granted for years – popup notifications. Back when I used to use MSN instant messenger, these were called ‘Toasts’ as they would pop up like a piece of toast coming out of the toaster. Similar notifications have been used by e-mail clients and Instant Messengers to instantly alert users of new activity for a long time – probably ever since such applications have existed. But until now, it wasn’t possible in a web-based application.

This progress makes perfect sense though – GMail is both an e-mail application and an Instant Messaging platform, and I leave both open constantly through the day. However, quite often my wife calls or sends a text message saying ‘I sent you chat messages, where are you?!?’ Now, with desktop notifications, I no longer have the excuse ‘I was in another program, and the sound was off’.

How does it work?

These notifications only work in Google Chrome, because it is not a standard web/browser operation. Google came up with the idea and the implementation to allow GMail to create desktop-like notifications, but it requires support from the browser. This isn’t just some scheme to get people to use Chrome – Google have documented their system, and are proposing it to be an open web standard. Hopefully Mozilla, Apple and Microsoft will implement the required APIs and framework in future versions of their browsers.

Users are also required to give explicit permission for a site to be able to generate desktop notifications. If this weren’t the case, annoying sites would be able to create all sorts of ridiculous and spamy notifications.

My Operating System has its own notification system

What’s interesting about Google’s implementation of these desktop notifications is that it allows for notifications to be deferred to the OS’s default notification system. So, if you’re on a mobile platform you can get convenient notifications, rather than some huge desktop style toast window. If you’re on a Mac, you can get Growl notifications. I’m not sure what the current state of these is, as I have neither a mac nor a smartphone, but this is certainly built into the design.

Is this really useful?

As my previous example illustrates, this is useful for me so that I can notice e-mails and chat messages when they come in. I run GMail in an Application Window, so quite often I can’t see the title bar (with its unread message count and flashing chat indicator) as it’s not in my regular browser window. However, this goes so much further than just e-mail and chat.

While you’re at work, you have open in a browser tab somewhere a live feed of your favourite sporting event. Obviously you can’t sit watching the updates as they come in, and checking every 10 minutes you may miss the exciting information/replays. But if desktop notifications are enabled, you get a small popup each time something interesting happens. Someone kicks a goal, takes a wicket, wins a game, etc. The notification contains a small description of the event. If it’s not interesting enough, or you are too busy at the moment, you ignore it and it disappears. Otherwise, you click on the notification and are taken directly to your open tab where you can watch a replay and see the current score.

Basically, these notifications let you spend more time being productive, rather than hunting through your tabs and windows looking for changes and updates.

The Bookmarks Bar

I love to have quick links available to sites I visit often. That’s why I love the Google Chrome “New Tab Page”, with links to my 8 most visited sites, and also links to recently closed tabs. I also love auto-complete in the Chrome address bar – I can start typing in the address of sites that I visit often, and it fills in the rest.

But there are some sites that I don’t visit every day, perhaps just 3-4 times a week, but I still want 1-click access to them. I don’t want to memorise the URLs, because they are long, or similar to other URLs that I visit more frequently. A perfect example of this is some of Google’s other services – Analytics and Adsense. The URL for both of them begins with http://www.google.com/ so auto-complete isn’t of such great help, and I don’t go there often enough to make the New Tab Page.

This is exactly what I use the Bookmark Bar for! The Bookmark Bar sits just below the address bar, and gives a thin strip containing links and folders of links – providing quick access to your bookmarks and favourite sites. To add a site to your bookmark bar, simply click and drag the star next to the address bar (the Bookmark button) down to the Bookmark Bar. A right click in the Bookmark bar also give options for adding new pages and folders. Folders are fantastic, because with 2 clicks (Right click > Open all Bookmarks) you can open all of those pages in separate tabs (even in a new window). Perfect for opening a group of related sites very quickly (at lunch break for example).

So, I was horrified and lost when I got to work this morning and saw that my Bookmarks Bar was no where to be found. I thought perhaps an over night update to Chrome had disabled or changed it. Fortunately, this was not the case. The Bookmark Bar can be instantly shown/hidden with the key combination ‘Ctrl + B’. Nice and simple. So for those of you who like the extra bit of room for the web page, hiding and showing the Bookmark Bar is quick and simple, allowing efficiency and convenience. And who knows – you may even like it enough to leave it there all the time!

The Beta Channel – Chrome 3.0

Release Early. Release Often.

That is a philosophy that can work well in some software development circles, but in others it can fail miserably. Most people, especially those who are less technically minded, expect their software to ‘Just Work’, and will complain, give up, or stop using a program if it doesn’t. And that’s where the problem lies with this strategy – If you release a rough version of a program, many people may be turned off of it forever. Look at Windows Vista – when it was released it was slow wand had all sorts of issues. So many people, myself included, vowed to never install it. By many accounts, Vista has been greatly improved by its service packs (as is common for Windows Operating Systems), but Vista is still avoided where possible.

However, there are many among us who would rather have the new features sooner rather than later, and are willing to live with a few rough edges for that privilege. So with all of this in mind, Google has done something clever with Chrome – there are three different update ‘Channels’ available, Stable, Beta and Dev. Google describes the channels as follows:

  • Stable channel. Everyone is on the Stable channel when they first install Google Chrome. The Stable channel is updated with features and fixes once they have been thoroughly tested in the Beta channel. If you want a rock solid browser but don’t need the latest features, the Stable channel is for you.
  • Beta channel. People who like to use and help refine the latest features subscribe to the Beta channel. Every month or so, we promote stable and complete features from the Dev channel to the Beta channel. The Beta channel is more stable than Dev, but may lack the polish one expects from a finished product.
  • Dev channel. This developer preview channel is where ideas get tested (and sometimes fail). The Dev channel can be very unstable at times, and new features usually require some manual configuration to be enabled. Still, simply using Dev channel releases is an easy (practically zero-effort) way for anyone to help improve Google Chrome.

I have been subscribed to the Beta Channel updates for a few months now, and love that it has been updated so often. And today it has been updated to version 3.0. The dev channel has been in 3.0 versions for several months now, with extensions being one of the big new features being worked on. Extensions promise to allow many more optioinal features to Chrome, giving a richer browsing experience. Many people, myself included, miss the large range of extensions available for Mozilla Firefox. In fact, one of the few reasons I still open Firefox is to use DownThemAll, an extension which allows you to download many links on a page with very few clicks.

The 3.0 Beta version does not yet have extensions enabled – if you want to try them out, you’ll need to subscribe to the dev channel. But, with 3.0 reaching beta status, it give me hope that it will not be too many more months before 3.0 is considered stable, and extensions can come to Beta.

If you’re wondering how to change your update channel, follow the following links for the installers

Beta Channel

Dev Channel

If you change your mind and want to go back, or have any difficulties with the above links, try using the Channel Changer program. Note that if you switch to a chanel which updates less often and is at an earlier version (ie, Beta back to Stable, or Dev back to Beta or Stable), you will remain at your currently installed version until the version number in your new channel passes your current version number. To go back to a previous version, you will need to uninstall Chrome, and reinstall the version you would like to use. Remember to back up your bookmarks and other browser data.

Updating Chrome

A Google engineer came and spoke at my university a few years ago, and talked about one of Google’s strategies – ‘Release Early, Release Often’. This partially explains why GMail is in perpetual Beta – It is constantly being changed and improved, and so never really reaches ‘Final’.

When Chrome was first released, I wondered how this would happen, since it is not a web-based application and updates depended on the user. I expected that updates would still be quite regular, but not quite so transparent. And so I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The one day, I was checking for updates (via the Spanner icon, About Google Chrome), and I noticed that the version number was bigger than it had been. And then it twigged – the Google Update Service is automatically installed alongside Chrome, and runs continuously. That let Google continue to update Chrome for everyone at their pace. 

I’m not really a big fan of programs that run in the back ground continuously, so I turned off the Google Update Service. Today I had my first opportunity for a manual upgrade of Chrome. And it was seemless. Go to the ‘About’ page. Chrome checks for updates, and offers for you to download it. Press Ok, wait for the update to take place, and re-start Chrome when you would like. Too easy!

I think the best part about the upgrade process is that there are no annoying pop-ups or reminders to restart Chrome. It just says to close all windows and re-open Chrome to complete the update.

So, now I have a nice shiny new version of Chrome!

Incognito Application Shortcuts

While playing with Application Shortcuts for the last post, I found that Chrome will not make an ‘Incognito Application Shortcut’. That is, even if you are in an incognito window when you first make an Application Shortcut, whenever you open it, your web application will be in a regular, non-incognito window. 

To get around this shortcoming, we’ll need to edit the application shortcut manually. Right click on your shortcut and click ‘Properties’. Go the the ‘Shortcut’ tab, and find the ‘Target’ text box. For example, the target text for my GMail shortcut is 
“C:\Documents and Settings\Dallin\Local Settings\Application Data\Google\Chrome\Application\chrome.exe”  ––app=https://mail.google.com/mail/

 To turn this into an Incognito Application Shortcut, we’re going to add ‘–incognito’ before the ––app in the shortcut target, so that it now looks like 
“C:\Documents and Settings\Dallin\Local Settings\Application Data\Google\Chrome\Application\chrome.exe” –incognito ––app=https://mail.google.com/mail/

Now when your run your application shortcut, the window will have the familiar darker tint of an incognito window, and you’ll know your private data will remain private!