"If you build it, they will come" isn't always enough. Sometime you have to let somebody else build on your foundation.
That's what Google is now doing with Gmail, letting Google Apps customers add various third-party applications that integrate with the e-mail service.
"Starting today, third-party developers can build Gmail contextual gadgets and distribute them in the Google Apps Marketplace. These gadgets can display information from social networks, business services, Web applications and other systems, and users can interact with that data right within Gmail," Chandrashekar Raghavan, product manager for Google Apps extensions, said in a blog post Tuesday.
Gmail, while growing steadily in usage, faces competition from two major incumbent powers for Web-based e-mail, Yahoo Mail and Hotmail. Yahoo Mail can accommodate some applications, including ones from PayPal and Facebook, and Microsoft is working on making Hotmail more lively.
But Gmail also has old-school Exchange and Outlook to reckon with when it comes to corporate customers, and it's this area where the Google Apps suite of online services competes most directly. Gmail contextual gadgets are an example of Google's attempt to accommodate specific productivity tools into its general-purpose e-mail service.
Google Apps administrators can install the contextual gadgets for their users. Those applications then appear when appropriate within the e-mail body. Examples include AwayFind, which lets a person mark a message as urgent so follow-ups generate alerts, Pixetell, which lets people preview video messages and add comments; and Gist, which collects data from the Web about the person who sent an e-mail.
One of Google's philosophies--and themes of its Google I/O conference that begins Wednesday--is building rich applications on the Web, and Gmail is one of its prime examples. But making Gmail into more of a foundation for outside programmers is a big step beyond a single, generic application.