It’s probably not a good sign that I’m this excited about an email widget, but there you go.
Google has just announced that it’s rolling out a new feature over the next week called the People Widget — a small sidebar to the right of email messages that features contextual information about the people you’re interacting with in Gmail. I don’t have the feature active yet so I’m going by the screenshots provided, but it looks like the widget includes each person’s job title, recent email exchanges you’ve had with them, photo, calendar availability, and shared Google Docs. It also includes Buzz updates (hopefully Twitter integration is coming as well).
If you only exchange a handful of messages a day then this probably isn’t a game changer for you, but if you’re constantly having to deal with a flurry of projects and hundreds of contacts, then it could be a godsend. Of course, Google actually isn’t the first company to offer contextually relevant information within Gmail (strange as that may sound). Startups like Rapportive and Xobni have created browser widgets that offer similar functionality.
Rapportive actually includes information from more sources, including LinkedIn, Skype and our own CrunchBase. But Gmail has a couple big advantages: first, it obviously doesn’t require a browser plugin, which is important from a user-acquisition standpoint. And, for those of us who are paranoid about our email, Gmail’s People Widget doesn’t require you to entrust any of your account information to a third-party. Rapportive only looks at the contacts you’re interacting with (and not your message content), but that’s still something.