No Labs Love for Google Apps

About a month ago, I made the switch from an email hosting service which I paid for to Google Apps, or GApps, as it’s often called. GApps is Google’s suite of web apps (including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, etc.) designed for use with your own custom domain name. There are two editions, the Standard Edition which is free, and the Premier Edition which includes support more storage space for email accounts.

The service actually premiered as “Google Apps For Your Domain” back in August of 2006, and I was an initial beta tester. I thought it was great, but the IMAP features that were added in June of 2007 (more on that later) weren’t yet built in, and as a result it wasn’t all that useful for me, so I shut it down.

Recently though, after I ran into some difficulties with the email hosting service I mentioned earlier, I’ve been back in the market for an email hosting service, so I decided to check out Gmail and GApps again, and signed up for new accounts.

Tweaking Gmail

At first, I started using a Gmail account to send and receive email for my various domains. It worked perfectly, and I really enjoyed the Advanced IMAP Controls feature made available through a Google Labs add-on. This tweak lets you decide which labels show up in IMAP, turn off message auto-expunging, or trash messages when they’re deleted from IMAP.

Advanced IMAP Controls

Being able to hide Gmail’s All Mail folder, where Gmail secretly stores all of your mail (read, unread, trashed, etc.), is a boon when using an IMAP email client such as Apple’s Mail.app.

But using Gmail in this way isn’t perfect. You have to forward all of the email accounts and aliases you’d like to use to your Gmail account. You then need to configure your Gmail account to receive and reply-from each of these email accounts.

That’s really not such a bad thing, but it requires that you configure your registrar with mail services in order to “host” your email and do the forwarding, use a third-party email hosting service (most are for-pay) to forward your mail to Gmail, or host the mail yourself at your hosting company or on your dedicated server.

You need to run through these steps for each of your domains (if you have more than one), and for each account and all of the aliases you use.

Enter Google Apps

GApps presented an excellent alternative to this approach. Instead of the forwarding and email hosting song and dance, GApps allows you to point your DNS MX records right at Google’s redundant mail servers so that Google is actually responsible for hosting all of the mail for your domains – especially useful if you have many of the same accounts on your domains and want only one email account. It’s also great for businesses (or families) with multiple email accounts.

Once setup, you can just check your email using IMAP (or even POP if you’re so inclined) as you would with any other hosted service. You also have the luxury of Gmail’s web interface for your email as well. It’s a seamless, perfect solution, except for one thing …

All Mail

Then there’s that pesky All Mail folder, where Gmail stores all of your email. That’s right, every email you receive, even after you’ve deleted it or moved it into another IMAP folder (actually mapped to a Gmail “Label”), actually lives in the All Mail folder, forever (unless you manually go in and remove it).

That Pesky All Mail Folder

This is because with a few special exceptions, Gmail uses tags) in order to determine how and where to display your mail. New messages are tagged in a special way to appear in your Inbox, for example. When you drag an email into one of your IMAP folders in Gmail, you’re really just tagging it with a new label, and untagging it so it will no longer appear in your Inbox.

But no matter how you organize your mail or where you put your messages, behind the scenes, they’re all still in the All Mail folder.

This actually isn’t a bad thing – the All Mail folder is actually incredibly useful, allowing you to quickly search for and keep track of every email you’ve ever sent or received within Gmail’s fast web interface. Unfortunately, many IMAP email clients get hung up on folders with lots of messages in them.

The Google Labs Advanced IMAP Controls feature lets you control which Labels are visible to IMAP (as folders) and which ones aren’t. Preventing the display of the All Mail folder is as easy as checking a box.

All Mail ... Hidden

No Labs for New Google Apps

After signing up and getting things configured, I went into the Domain Settings tab in your GApps control panel and checked the boxes next to Automatically add new Google services and Turn on new features. According to the Google Apps New Services and Features article, I learned that it may “take up to 24 hours for any changes to take effect in your users’ accounts.”

GApps Settings Supposed to Enable Labs

So I waited 24 hours, but Labs still hadn’t appeared in any of my GApps accounts. So I waited another 24 hours. And then another. Meanwhile, my All Mail folder was starting to collect more and more mail. A bit of searching revealed that many other people were having the exact same problem.

Unfortunately, it turns out that there are some issues with adding the Labs functionality to a GApps accounts.

For some users, especially those with older (like a year or more) GApps accounts, checking those two boxes actually does enable Labs functionality within GApps. I’m involved with a few projects that use GApps for their email, and in those accounts, I can enable the Labs features. But for those of us with newer accounts however, it’s not quite so easy.

And despite trying every hack I’ve read about (like adding ?labs=1 to the URL when viewing settings), Labs just won’t appear for my GApps. People I’ve told about seem to think I just don’t know where the Labs tab actually lives, so I’ve included the following screenshots to show that, no really, Labs just isn’t there for my GApps account the way it is for my Gmail account. Here’s a screenshot to prove it:

Labs Missing from Google Apps

A (Possible) Answer

After some more searching, I found a thread in Google’s discussion groups that seemed to contain some feedback from actual Google employees (vs. the normal banter between users). There were problems enabling Labs with GApps accounts, and Google was aware of it. They’d tried to roll out a fix, but according to the users in the group (and from my own experience), it didn’t take.

And then, on October 30th, just when we were starting to give up home, this update:

Hi Everyone,

Here’s the skinny, the low-down, the bottom line:

We are about 2-3 weeks away from a permanent solution, and we are looking to get a fix in in the short term. The story is that the whole code which is responsible for enabling Labs needs to be re-written so it can be integrated into the current backend code structure.

That of course takes time, and with the slew of exciting things that we’re working on to make Google Apps even better, it’s been hard to get resources dedicated to this Labs issue.

However, it is being worked on and an Advisor will drop in again when we have an update. Again, 2-3 weeks is the current ETA on this, but unforeseen issues (hurricanes, burnt pizza mouths, firedrills, etc) can of course potentially delay us again. The entire team is aware of this issue and it has been moved up higher on the “we need to get this done” list.

A good, positive response from Google. The potential for a happy future exists.

The Whole Code

As a software developer, the most interesting part of the response I’ve quoted above is this line:

[The] whole code which is responsible for enabling Labs needs to be re-written so it can be integrated into the current backend code structure

This statement makes it sound like the mechanism they use to integrate Labs into GApps is different from the one they’re using to integrate it into their “normal” apps, like Gmail.

I just wonder why the existing mechanism, the code responsible for enabling Labs, does work for some GApps accounts and not others. Again, many people I know with slightly older accounts were able to enable Labs with a single click and to then start using those features immediately.

In any case, those of us with newer GApps accounts can hope to have Labs enabled in 2 to 3 weeks.

In the meantime, feel free to share your experiences here, and I’ll follow-up if and when Labs suddenly appears in my account. Please do the same.

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