Sometime in 2009 I switched from using Outlook as my primary email client to using the Gmail web interface. I still use Outlook some of the time, but Gmail is far more mobile and the search features outperform anything I’ve ever gotten from Outlook, even when I combined it with search plugins. One usability quirk in the transition from Outlook to Gmail routinely drives me nuts. It annoys me to no end that there’s no consistent way to open a mailto link—which is any link where someone makes their email address clickable on a web page—in my web mail client.
In most cases, the links will attempt to open whatever email software may be on your computer, whether it’s Mail.app on a Mac, Outlook on Windows, or even Thunderbird or Outlook Express if you ever used one of those. The problem isn’t unique to being a Gmail users either. If you use Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, or any web email solution, mailto links don’t work the way they should.
Instead of being able to click and send, you end up hovering over the link to see the email address or copying and pasting the email address to your webmail client to make it functional. While this isn’t an impossible solution, it degrades the experience of websites. I have seen a few plugins and hacks that attempt to address the issue, but nothing that works on any kind of consistent basis. That is, until now.
Thanks to HTML5, Google is doing their part to eliminate the usability hurdle of mailto links. By adding a new feature to Gmail, in combination with Google Chrome browser, you can turn on the ability to have mailto links directed to your Gmail account. For this feature to work, you need to enable it.
The next time you sign out of Gmail and sign back in, you should see something like the screenshot below at the top of your browser bar. Keep in mind you need to be using Chrome to see this.
Click that Use Mail button and from that point forward, each time you click an email link on a website it will open a window where you can compose a new Gmail message. The To field will be pre-populated with the email address. If you are not signed into Gmail at the time you click the link, you will be taken to a Gmail page where you can sign in and start composing the message.
I know this seems like such a small thing, but clickable mailto links that go to your email client really are a dramatic improvement in the usability of webmail in the browser. With any luck, we’ll see something similar from Yahoo and Hotmail following soon. I’m also hopeful that this will be similar to choosing the search provider for your browser, so that browsers aren’t shutting out the competition.