The Mysterious Grey Box On Gmail

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Last week we received an email from an eagle-eyed Gmail user pointing out a strange graphic that has appeared in the top-left hand corner of the application. The icon is a ten by ten pixel graphic with a diagonal line across it, with one half in black and the other in gray. It isn’t an inline image, as you can not highlite it or select it in your browser, nor right-click on it. There is also no reference to the image within the style sheet for Gmail.

All users of Firefox should be able to see the box on both Mac and Windows, and we tested across multiple versions of both the browser and operating systems.

In Firefox:

To add a strange twist, when viewed in Safari the graphic is slightly different – with only half of it loading and the colors being inverted (although it is the same dimensions as what is seen in Firefox).

In Safari:

Gmail is difficult to debug on the client-side because Gmail is written using the Google Web Toolkit, which outputs Javascript and CSS that isn’t really intended for human consumption (have a look at the CSS class names, or just the source to the main page itself as examples). There also isn’t a seperate HTTP request to an image that looks like the graphic that is displayed. When you load the DOM inspector, it shows that the graphic is being displayed inside of an IFRAME, and that frame contains some Javascript and simple XHTML.

Initially we suspected that the graphic may be rendered in SVG, a format that defines vector graphics in XML markup. The theory would be that Google is testing browser compatability for SVG across their user base – although there is no reason why they would run such a test for weeks. Google could be looking to develop a more advanced web interface for their applications in the future using SVG (considering they are squeezed between Flash and Silverlight at the moment).

There was a similar issue reported on a forum back in January of this year, and then it also specifically applied to Gmail (although it was a slightly different issue – see screenshot). This same issue was also recently covered and commented on at Google Blogoscoped. We contacted Google about this back on Wednesday, and we have only been told that they are getting back to us at some point with an official response.

  • fatoracle

    The graphic looks like a “flip-page” graphic to a bended page corner…if u know what I mean?

  • shane blyth

    maybe it is just to look nice

  • Patrick Hankinson

    Umm… Its an Iframe box at 1px width and height.

  • Garry Conn

    That is strange. I first noticed this too this morning. Now that I see it, I kinda bugs me. ;)

  • N

    Woah… that’s spooky. seeing here on firefox too.

  • Richard Chmura

    @3 – Agree, it definitely looks like an iframe. closer inspection reveals an emtpty (no href) iframe. Can anyone confirm that?

  • Shimon Amit

    It’s the end of the world as we know it!

  • Ray

    The Google Web Toolkit uses an iFrame to implement history functionality to get around the problems associated with Ajax and saving a pages state, but this is usually done invisibly to the user. Maybe it has something to do with that, and they’ve got a tiny bug with it?

  • Matt Richardson

    Seen this for a while – using Firefox 2.0 – pretty sure I have seen it on more sites than just Gmail so assumed it was a Firefox bug…

  • Porter Glendinning

    It’s definitely coming from their “invisible” iframes. It looks like someone changed some styling recently and forgot to zero out the borders on their “invfr” class. What you’re seeing are the borders of a 0px tall, 0px wide iframe — several, actually, stacked in the upper left corner. This accounts for why the “graphics” look different in Firefox and Safari, since they render default iframe borders with different shades of gray.

  • that’s great… » hey google, what is that?

    […] speaks on it too. – Thanks Jason […]

  • Dan Kjaergaard

    Wasn’t expecting this on the Techcrunch “Enterprise IT” blog.

  • alex

    @12 you got it right …. save the the silly stuff for other blogs ….

  • Zef Hemel

    As far as I’m aware Gmail is not written using Google Web Toolkit, or that has changed recently.

  • Gmail’s Mysterious Grey Box

    […] a small grey box rendered in an iFrame in the top left hand corner of Gmail, and TechCrunchIT is trying to figure out what it is. The icon is a ten by ten pixel graphic with a diagonal line […]

  • dyl

    Going to reveal an updated UI

  • Jack Carlson

    It’s a court ordered tracking widget that reports your IP address directly to Viacom.

  • Cameron

    In Firefox 3, if I refresh the page, the little graphic persists for a small while after the rest of the page has turned white but before the loading bar appears.

  • Ram

    Google’s way of mourning?

  • David Damore

    It appears to be the all seeing Google eye.

    They see everything.

    Now you know ;)

  • satchit

    I wonder if it is going to be a floating toolbar, so that it can be managed as a separate browser window, like how chat windows can be managed.

  • iMads

    It’s the return of The Big Red Button That doesn’t do anything. Except this time, it’s disguised itself.

  • iMads

    Oh, and of course. The link to it’s true nature.

  • Cameron

    Infact, if you create your own page like this:

    and view it in Firefox 3/Safari, you will have your very own mysterious grey box! What you’re seeing is the artefact from the bevel, which explains it’s varying appearance.

  • Cameron

    Damn.. it didn’t appear.. it must have filtered out the HTML.

    Try this:

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