Continuing its push into communications products and services, Google has incorporated a chat client into Gmail, blending the best features of both technologies.
The chat client resembles the chat client introduced with Google Talk last August, though it's tightly integrated with Gmail, making it more useful, especially if you're a regular Gmail user.
The chat window itself opens up in the bottom right of the Gmail screen. You can have several chats going simultaneously, and pop a chat session out into its own window.
Gmail has been modified to now display a list of "quick contacts" on the left side of the Gmail display. This list is created automatically, drawn from the people you communicate with most frequently, and is synchronized with your Google Talk Friends list, if you have one. You can modify this list so that contacts display "always" or "never."
The status of your contacts online presence is indicated with a colored ball next to each name. Green means available, yellow means the person's computer has been idle for 15 minutes or more, red means busy, and grey means signed out of chat.
If no ball icon appears next to a person's name it means they don't yet have a Google account with Gmail or Google talk. You can invite them by hovering over their name and clicking invite to chat.
You can also modify your status with a descriptive message that tells more about your current availability (busy, working at home, etc).
One of the nicest features of the new chat tool is that chats are automatically archived within your Gmail account (you can disable this feature on the "settings" page if you like). A new link displays all archived chats, in much the same way that mail is stored in mailboxes. This also makes them searchable within Gmail.
You can also see a list of chats with each contact when you click the "recent conversations" link that appears when you hover your cursor over a contact's name.
Google has added an "off the record" feature that allows you to turn off auto-archiving with specific contacts. When you go off the record, both parties are notified that no record is being kept of the chat in either person's Gmail account.
While this is a nice feature that helps protect privacy, it only prevents the chat from being recorded by Google. Depending on the chat client, one side can still easily record a chat without the other party being aware of it—indeed, this can be as simple as cutting and pasting the chat transcript to another program.
This isn't to fault Google—on the contrary, it's a nice feature that should appeal to people wanting to at least exercise some degree of control over their chat transcripts.
The new Google chat feature will automatically begin to appear in existing Gmail accounts sometime after midnight eastern time today, February 7th. The rollout to all users will be gradual, occuring over the next several weeks. Gmail is still in beta, and access is by invitation of another Gmail user. Alternately, residents in some countries can request a Gmail account by mobile phone; check this page to see if your country of residence is included.
For more information about Gmail with chat, visit http://mail.google.com.
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