Exclusive: We talk to Todd Jackson, the man in charge of Gmail and Buzz

Todd Jackson
Google's Todd Jackson in a panel at SXSWi

TechRadar caught up with Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz, for an exclusive interview at the recent South By South West Interactive (SXSWi) conference in Austin Texas.

TechRadar: In the panel Gmail: Behind the Scenes, Gmail engineer Jonathan Perlow said that Google had been working on Buzz for four years before it launched…

Jackson: For many of the projects that we do in Gmail, we'll try something and for whatever reason maybe it will work or maybe it won't work and sometimes we come back to the projects later. For example some of the labels work that we launched about a year ago had been an ongoing thing.

We'd always thought from the beginning of Gmail, how could we improve labels, how could we make them more accessible to people. So that's something we often do, it wasn't unique to Buzz in any way. We often try a project several times before we get something that we really like. It's part of our philosophy around iteration.

TR: But four years ago, the seed was there?

Jackson: Yeah, I think the thing that was most interesting to us originally was we had chat in Gmail and we wanted people to be able to share status messages in chat, and then the next logical thing was we wanted to be able to let people reply to status messages, because before Buzz there was no way to do that.

You could post a status message but it could never turn into a conversation. So that was one of the early experiments that we tried before. But for whatever reason there were other projects that we decided were more important - the biggest project we did was the entire re-write of Gmail's JavaScript architecture which has allowed us to do more projects concurrently.

But for a time two or three years ago the entire team was working on that and so we weren't as able to work on certain different projects. Since that major rewrite we've been able to revisit some of those projects and bring them to life.

TR: What is Buzz actually for? Is it Google Wave in my inbox, is it Twitter? A lot of people I talk to have no idea.

Jackson: Then we have to do a better job communicating that to people. The way we see Buzz… so first of all, within Gmail, we want to solve all the ways that users want to communicate. We started with just email and then we added chat and then we added video chat. And this sort of passive social sharing is another way that people obviously want to communicate and so we want Gmail to be a good tool for that. But if people can't figure out what it's for then that's something we need to do better at.

How we envision it is for people to be able to share all kinds of stuff on Buzz – interesting news that they are reading, photos that they just took, places they went to, chat status messages that turn into conversations, and we want that to be a really easy and fluid experience inside Gmail where we know a lot of people are a lot of the time.

So that's our vision for the product – I don't think we're there yet, it's something that we are continually working on and launching new features – we just launched some features that are enhancements to Buzz and you're going to see us continue to work on it and adding new features to serve this vision that we have where people will be using it as a major communication tool.

TR: So that's why it's in Gmail and not a standalone app like Google Wave?

Jackson: We know that people like having an integrated communication experience. Sometimes you get an email and you want to reply by chat rather than email and we see those same opportunities with Buzz, the fluidity of transitioning between the ways we communicate. I think it's a totally fair criticism that we're not there yet but it's something that we're going to continue to try to do better.

TR: So will Buzz stay within the mail client or will we see Buzz clients either from Google or third parties?

Jackson: We think those kinds of opportunities are really interesting. We keep it pretty close to the chest in terms of what future products we are working on, but we want people who don't use Gmail to be able to use Buzz and so we're trying to address that. And we love the idea of third-party developers contributing to Buzz, so that's another thing that we are thinking about. There already are Buzz APIs available – they're currently read-only and we want to provide more full APIs and see an ecosystem.

TR: So it could be apps or it could be posting to Buzz from, say, Blogger…

Jackson: We're interested in all kinds of things…

TR: In another panel at SXSWi Google software engineer Brett Slatkin talked about how you might have a WordPress blog that pulls comments into Buzz, and that posting to Buzz would push those comments back out to WordPress. How's that coming along?

Jackson: It is very early but we are actively working on these things. We want Buzz to be interoperable with all these different communication products that aren't done by Google. And we want Buzz to be a leading example of some of these open APIs and open protocols. Because the way that we see it is that users want to use all these various different products, we don't want to lock them into Google products, but we want Google products to work really well and seamlessly with the other things they are using around the web.

TR: So would you urge Twitter, Facebook, and Microsoft to think the same way?

Jackson: That's certainly up to those companies. We believe that open standards are the way to go because it creates the most value for users. For example, one of the things that Brett said was 'back in the day before SMTP email standards came about you could only chat within AOL or whatever other company was around and that's sort of the way things are with social networks these days, so it's something that we would definitely like to see change.

TR: Regarding the privacy issues that plagued the launch of Buzz, do you think that the tech industry thinks it's perfectly natural to want to share everything and don't understand that in the real world people don't want to share as much?

Jackson: I don't think that's an excuse. I think that we are building products for millions of users and that we have to launch things that millions of users are comfortable with. I do think within the tech industry and people who use a lot of these products, there is more of a common understanding that if everyone shares their stuff the community benefits.

We did a recent usability study within Google about photos and one of the things we heard people saying was 'I don't really want to share my photos publicly but I want everyone else to.' So it's a really interesting thing that if everybody shares a little more openly then everybody benefits.

And we are trying to help users understand that and also give them the controls – privacy equals control and giving people the tools they need to be in control of the information they share. But in general we think it's better for people to be sharing more openly because it benefits other users.

Global Editor-in-Chief

After watching War Games and Tron more times that is healthy, Paul (Twitter, Google+) took his first steps online via a BBC Micro and acoustic coupler back in 1985, and has been finding excuses to spend the day online ever since. This includes roles editing .net magazine, launching the Official Windows Magazine, and now as Global EiC of TechRadar.