Google to allow third party code in Gmail?

According to executives from the company, Google are preparing to open Gmail to developers outside the Googleplex labs.

According to executives from the company, Google is preparing to open Gmail to developers outside the Googleplex labs.

As the Web giant prepares to unleash new features upon the popular email client, the company also hinted to the future -- where third-party developers can code new Gmail features or add-ons.

Keith Coleman, a Gmail product manager, told CNET's Stephen Shankland:

"We'd like to get to a point where more people can build on this. That would requires something with a different level of interface," Coleman said. "We're interested in making it possible of users and us to iterate on the product faster, so it's something we're interested in."

While hardcore Gmail operators may be using the Gmail/Greasemonkey API already to build their own email hacks and features, these are officially unsupported. What an officially supported third-party plug-in system would do is add useful plug-ins in much the same way desktop email clients, like Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla's Thunderbird, already have.

Whereas this could open the door to many awesomely annoying new add-ons such as those found in the Mozilla repository, the possibilities for enterprise applications could be quite interesting. For example, a plug-in for a CRM application would be useful (other than and select Google partners), as would the ability to drag and drop files into drop boxes like Microsoft Exchange. Even a handy Linkedin toolbar would be handy for those who like to keep track of business contacts.

The flipside to opening up Gmail is that it may lose two of its best features -- simplicity and security. The interface to Gmail is simple, and the risk of opening up that interface is feature creep and cluttered email. Unless the interface is somehow controlled, then Gmail risks losing its sense of being a powerful, no-nonsense email client.

The second and larger problem of opening up Gmail to third-party developers is security. The folks at Google pride themselves on secure email with minimal spam, though they have had their share of security holes in the past. An open system, unless controlled tightly, is also an unsecure system. Just this week Builder AU's sister site, ZDNet Australia, has reported spammers taking advantage of Google's free analytics service to track the performance of spam campaigns. Unless controlled carefully, Gmail plus Google Analytics could be the ultimate (free) toolset for spammers.

Doom and gloom aside, it'll be an area to watch from Google. As a part of Google's technology stack, Gmail and Google Apps may eventually be a competitor to Microsoft's Exchange, Office, and SharePoint offerings. One of the advantages Microsoft has is the strong support in the commercial software sector building Office tools and services tailored for businesses. Google's technology stack might look like the cool kid on the block, but overall it falls short as an extensible business solution that can be tailored for individual enterprise customers.

Microsoft has been saying it for years, but if Google can work out a way to allow more third-party involvement, the winner will be the one who can grab the attention of “developers, developers, developers”. In fact, Microsoft has even unleashed a new Ballmer Bot this week to spread the word:

Time will see where these technologies end up, but maybe, just maybe, the fate of office 2.0 players can be decided in one colossal robot war.