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The new feature is available through Gmail Labs, which can be accessed from a tab on the Settings page. It may not be immediately available to all Gmail users simultaneously, as is common when Google enables new features. Google expects to post an announcement on its Gmail blog late Thursday or on Friday.
To send an SMS message, a Gmail user simply enters an SMS-capable mobile phone number into the chat window and that prompts a "Send SMS" popup menu. Google's implementation of computer-to-phone SMS includes a particularly helpful feature: It assigns the Gmail sender a persistent pseudo-phone number so that the SMS recipient can send SMS messages back to the Gmail user at a later time using a consistent identifier. Typically, a computer user sending an SMS message to a mobile phone would create a different temporary identifier each session.
In the month of October, Google has launched seven new features for Gmail: Gmail Gadgets, emoticons for messages, Gmail for mobile version 2.0, Canned Responses, contact manager improvements, advanced IMAP controls, and Mail Goggles.
Gmail product manager Keith Coleman said that Google Labs has evolved into an increasingly significant mechanism for product innovation and testing at Google. After several years as a test bed for search and other products, the Labs concept debuted for Google's enterprise products about a year ago, for Gmail in June, and earlier this week for Google Apps.
"One of our goals with Labs was to set up a fast, iterative feedback cycle between the guys back in Mountain View coding this stuff and the users all over the world," explained Coleman.
In the past, Google's product development cycle would go something like this: Developers would create a new product, use it within their development group for a few months, launch it for internal use at Google, perhaps expand the user base to a group of trusted testers, and then finally release it to the public.
With Labs, the process is much quicker and more receptive to user input. Every Gmail Labs feature has a "send feedback" link. This is atypical for Google in that the company, because of its vast user base and limited commitment to customer support, has traditionally encouraged user self-help through Web documentation.
Google users, Coleman said, "have started to drive design on Labs features. A bunch of things we've launched have come out of those requests."
He points to Gmail's Advanced IMAP Controls, Mark as Read Button, and Canned Responses as features that began with user feedback.
Coleman said he didn't have any metrics to correlate the pace of innovation at Gmail with its rising usage, but he said the service is growing faster now that it did in the past.
According to comScore, Gmail had 26 million unique U.S. visitors in September 2008, up 39% from a year earlier. That's far better growth than either Microsoft or Yahoo saw during that period. Yahoo Mail, however, still has about four times as many users as Gmail.
Nonetheless, Coleman said Google's focus is more on the quality of users than the quantity. He said in general he would prefer to have the most passionate, active users.
Gmail's product design and development aims to make users happier, he explained. "We've found that investing in [user happiness] ends up triggering some kind of idea about how to make some kind of successful business out of that," he said.
Gmail, though Google Apps, now brings in revenue from those paying for Google Apps Premiere Edition. It also generates some ad revenue from text ads placed in the Gmail window. Coleman said that users accept the ads. "The feedback is that ads are not intrusive and occasionally useful," he said.