As far as webmail goes, Gmail is the most advanced feature-wise; sometimes I get the feeling the competition is not even trying to catch up. Even so, there are some useful things you cannot do in the Gmail web interface, that are available in offline email clients. One of those features I found very handy both in Lotus Notes and in Outlook is the ability to remove attachments from messages while keeping the text; the conversations are usually as important as the files. It’s a life saver when you are nearing your storage quota: search the largest messages, save the attachments locally and then delete them from the email server. I prefer this to creating an ‘archive’, because I hate having to search for messages in two different places – the normal inbox and the archive. As long as you have a good system for filing the attachments this should be more efficient.
You might think Gmail doesn’t have the same problem with storage, because there’s so much of it available – more than 7 GB and counting. But an inbox can fill up much quicker than Gmail increases the storage. While Gmail on the web doesn’t support the removal of attachments, there is a workaround by using IMAP to connect Gmail to a local email client:
- Locate the messages where you want to remove the attached files in the local client. You can also mark them on the web by labeling or starring them – labels will convert to folders in the IMAP client.
- Copy these messages in ‘Local folders’ in the mail client and delete the attachments from this local copy of the message. Thunderbird and Outlook behave somewhat differently at this step. Thunderbird leaves behind a “trace” of the original attachment in the message, labeling it “deleted” – this way you can still find the message by using the criterion has:attachment, even if the actual file size is negligible. Outlook on the other hand will remove the files entirely, as if they were never there.
- Go back to the Gmail web interface and delete the original messages.
- In the local client copy – or move – the copies, now attachment-free, back to the Gmail folders.
And done! The method is a little tedious, but the results are nearly perfect: the original time stamps are preserved and in my experience, the messages also fit in to the correct conversation threads. Alternatively you could open the messages directly from the Gmail IMAP folders in the local client and perform the delete, but this way the original date is lost, it gets replaced with the date when you removed the attachment.
- Original message in Gmail with attachment
- Message after attachment removal in Thunderbird
Given the importance Google places on the cloud strategy, it’s a bit odd that users need to rely on desktop software for this operation. For most office formats you can already save them to Google Docs, so replacing the original attachment with a link to the live file on Google Docs seems like the next logical step. But maybe this falls into the category: “not enough people would use the feature to justify the investment”.