GMail: Google Storms the Webmail
by Richard Wiggins
Senior Information Technologist
Michigan State University
Google's Gmail announcement shook the Internet community
in general and the Webmail industry in particular. A
1-gigabyte mailbox! Impossible! That amount of
storage raises the bar for free e-mail space by a stunning
factor: over 100 times the space that Hotmail and Yahoo!
provide. Data center types were even more stunned than
the general public; they could not imagine how Google
expected to handle the connected storage requirements.
The Gmail story seemed unbelievable on its face. A
whimsically written press release and the announcement's
April 1 timing also generated massive doubts as to
Google released news of the service to the media
on March 31. John Markoff covered the story for the
April 1 edition of The New York Times, and many
media outlets began carrying the story overnight. Your
correspondent woke up in the middle of the night on
the couch, saw the news story in the online edition
of the Times, and posted an incredulous announcement
to the Web4lib mailing list and of course to
As news of Google's stunning announcement spread
on April 1, many in the media and the public assumed
those playful lads in Mountain View were enjoying another
April Fool's Day. Internet discussion boards were abuzz
with speculation. Google co-founders Larry Page and
Sergey Brin wisecracked in the press release, claiming
they launched Gmail to help out a single individual
who'd complained that managing e-mail is chaotic. Yeah,
right, out of hundreds of millions of Google users,
they added e-mail to help one guy out?
Now we all know that Gmail is very, very real. This
article explores what Gmail is, how well it works,
some very serious flaws that Google needs to address,
the embedded targeted advertising and other privacy
concerns, and the behind-the-scenes global server and
storage infrastructure that could let the company skyrocket
A World-Class Webmail Client
Let's start with the good stuff. Gmail is awesome. The
Webmail client is an amazing piece of engineering.
After using it for just a few days, I had already grown
fond of it. Now, after a few weeks, it is true love.
Gmail engineers have built something that goes far beyond
the limitations others thought were inherent in a Webmail
client setting a new standard for highly interactive,
intuitive, Web-based clients for other applications
The first thing to note is the simplicity of the
interface just what you'd expect from Google.
The screen is about as uncluttered as it could be while
still providing all the functions you need well, most of
the functions you need. And note the almost total absence
of icons. Figure 1 on page 15 shows a Gmail screen
for an account with an empty mailbox.
Gmail uses textual links where other Webmail clients
would use HTML submit buttons or icons. One of its
few icons is a yellow star that you use to signal you
want a particular message "starred" or flagged as a
priority item. However, notice that Google doesn't
provide an icon for moving an item to the trash you
have to select the "More actions" drop-down and then
select the "Trash" option. I've got a conspiracy theory
as to why Google makes it hard to trash things; more
on that later.
Once you accumulate a number of messages in your
mailbox, you'll quickly appreciate the search feature.
Gmail indexes your mailbox to let you search it as
rapidly as Google Web searches handle the Web. The
philosophy is completely different than the familiar
approach of filing your mail into folders as you process
new items in your in-box. Suffice it to say: The search
is as fast as you'd expect from Google. Rival Webmail
providers either don't have a search function or performance
is painfully slow.
Other cool features of Gmail's Web client:
- You can turn on a feature that provides
keyboard shortcuts. Want to type a new message?
Just hit the letter C. It's kind of like using an
mail program such as Pine or Elm from inside a
- As you type in the addresses to the
people you wish to e-mail, the client does very fast
of names or addresses it recognizes from previous
mailings. When you've typed enough to uniquely identify
just hit Enter and the whole address completes.
- Another feature grabs the first few
words after the Subject line and displays them, peeking
the message a bit, as Outlook can do.
- You know how some e-mail exchanges go
back and forth like a conversation? Gmail groups
those exchanges into a "conversation" and displays them
as a single message. You can easily scan through
If you've used other Webmail clients and I've
used virtually all of 'em the other thing that
strikes you about Gmail is its speed. This sucker is fast. With
most Webmail clients, a simple transaction like deleting
one message can take forever. You click the "Trash" icon
and you wait, wait, wait for the screen to repaint.
With Gmail, the screen doesn't repaint it sort
of magically adjusts almost as if you were using
a local client like Outlook.
Similarly, the Gmail Web client quietly polls for
new messages periodically and adjusts the list of messages
to show the new ones without repainting the entire
It appears to me that Gmail has invented a protocol
that carries on background conversations between your
computer and the Gmail mother ship just as a "real" client
like Eudora or Outlook would do. The local client communicates
with the Gmail servers over a much more efficient channel
than the relatively cumbersome process of sending up
HTML form transactions and painting an entirely new
screen after each. It's as if you had the advantages
of a local mail client talking the IMAP protocol but
How does Google do it? Rumor has it that Google likes
to have development teams with as few as three people.
Grab three really bright programmers, lock them in
a basement with video games and Jolt Cola, and see
what comes out in a few months. I'm betting that one
of the folks in the Gmail trio is the world's best
and the third is superb on CSS and Iframes.
Shortcomings and Omissions
In case you're starting to think Google handed me
tulip bulbs for their Dutch Auction IPO, let me note
some shortcomings of Gmail.
Google wants you to fill that 1-gig Gmail box just
as full as you'd like. That's all well and good in
theory hey, it's their disk budget but
someday I may want to get all that stuff back. Gmail
offers no POP support Google is reportedly thinking
When I do fill up that 1-gig mailbox, I'll
need to clean it out. Gmail doesn't offer a way to
sort your mail by size. Its rivals do. If your mailbox
is full, the rational way to go about cleaning things
up is to sort the largest items to the top and delete
the ones you no longer need. The Gmail folks seem to
expect somewhat naively that 1 gigabyte
will suffice for all time. These days, a lot of us
are working with 5 megabyte PowerPoint files or 5 megapixel
digital photos. At the rate I'm filling my Gmail account,
it'll be full in about a year. When that year ends,
I'll demand a way to efficiently download all my stuff
and archive it to a burnable DVD.
- The spam detector is not as strong
as rivals such as Netaddress.com. It lets an awful
of spam through, and I've had some false positives
that really should not have occurred.
- The on-screen layout has some quirks.
For instance, a longish Subject line slides action
links around in an unexpected way.
- Speaking of Subject lines, you don't
see the Subject when replying to a message unless
you click on Edit Subject.
- There's no way to empty the entire
Trash folder or the entire Spam folder. That's basic
- Gmail has no feature for auto-forwarding
mail to other accounts. (Remember: It really wants
your mail on their servers.)
- There is no automated "signature" feature a
- There is no vacation reply feature another
- Gmail doesn't work on Macs using Safari,
the new native browser for the Mac. And when I
tried it on a Mac running Internet Explorer, it still
- The search feature, while fast, is not the
Google search engine. A company spokesperson said
that the IR (information retrieval) challenge presented
by Gmail was trivial compared to that of the global
Web search. One specific impact is the lack of
suggestions for near-match queries a tremendously
useful feature in Google Web searching.
Gmail Hates Folders
The Gmail tagline is, "Search, don't sort." Google
says: "Gmail uses Google search technology to find
messages so users don't have to create folders and
file their individual e-mails." A Webmail quota of
a gigabyte could let you keep years of important
e-mails in one place. Combine that with the power of
Google searches and you've finally got an efficient
way to find that important contract negotiation from
3 years ago.
Gmail takes the "search, don't sort" mantra to an
extreme. It not only says you don't need folders,
you aren't even allowed to create any folders!
With Gmail, Google has gone out of its way to avoid
the folder metaphor. Gmail doesn't want you to do any
work as you process new mail. Read it, reply to it,
react to it, archive it if you want but don't
spend time trying to figure out where to file it. Yahoo!
(and conventional mail services) more or less force
you to take a little effort to create a filing system
and move incoming mail into folders; Gmail encourages
you to archive everything in one flat All Mail folder
and just search when you need old stuff.
Gmail follows the patterns of Yahoo! and Google's
disparate approaches to organizing information: Yahoo!
Mail is to Yahoo! as Gmail is to Google. Yahoo! was
born as a hierarchically organized filing system for
Web sites; Google Web search is famously pure searching
of a giant, flat Webspace. The Yahoo! model requires
human filing effort it takes a team of catalogers
to put millions of Web sites in the appropriate spot
in the hierarchy. With Gmail or with Google Web search,
robots do all the work.
Even though Gmail doesn't want you to organize your
e-mail into folders, you may still want to identify
categories of messages in specific ways. In lieu of
folders, Gmail lets you apply metadata to a message
in the form of "Labels." Gmail does have a handful
of pre-defined folders Inbox, All, Sent, Spam,
Trash but you can't create any folders of your
own. (By the way, those last two folders Spam
and Trash have no universal delete function,
unlike every other known Webmail service.) It's almost
as if Gmail has a religious conviction that filing
into folders is evil.
But folders aren't evil. A hierarchical file
system remains a powerful and useful option. For instance,
I need to keep up with a couple thousand digital photos
from the last several years. On my hard drive, I organize
by the dates the photos were taken \2004\03,
\2004\04, etc. When I upload to a service such as Sony's
Imagestation, I create topical photo albums, drawing
from my chronologically organized folders. Gmail would
have me simulate this with a flat system of labels.
Searching and folders are not antithetical;
there's no reason why Gmail couldn't allow the user
to create folders. You've already got the pre-defined
Spam and Trash folders; why preclude others as the
user wishes? Rival services certainly allow this. For
my mailbox at usa.net, I have a folder labeled Northwest,
where I file all my airline receipts. I'm not very
diligent about filing into the Northwest folder as
ticket receipts arrive, so periodically I use the search
feature to find recent receipts, and move those messages
into the Northwest folder. Gmail forces me to do this
with labels, claiming this is better than folders,
because the same receipt can appear labeled in more
than one place (e.g., "Northwest" and "Business Travel").
Why not give me both? Let me put all of my Northwest
stuff in my Northwest folder and let me label it to
Folders are as important for what you don't put
into them as for what you do. If you find a folder
labeled "1985 Taxes" and know you are a careful filer,
you feel pretty confident you can throw the entire
folder away when no longer needed. I would be less
confident to search an unorganized database, pull up
a bunch of items on a hit list labeled "1985 Taxes," and
delete all the items without inspection. I know how
carefully I file things; I don't know when an unstructured
search will pull up some false matches.
As readers of Searcher well understand, sometimes
we put lots of effort into building good filing
systems. The classic example is the Library of Congress
classification and cataloging scheme used by major
research libraries. This scheme works great in many
ways, but the cost to catalog a book usually exceeds
the cost of the book. Other online information companies
put a lot of work into cleaning data and applying good
metadata before content is tossed into the database.
Do individuals want to put the same kind of effort
into filing their e-mail as LexisNexis or Gale would
put into online professional databases? Most of us
probably wouldn't. Yet some people expend a lot of
energy doing just that. You may not have heard of Nathaniel
Borenstein, but you've benefited from his work: He
invented MIME, the mechanism used for sending and receiving
e-mail attachments. Here's his strategy for coping
My incoming mail goes through several steps:
1. Heavy pre-sorting by spam filters and explicit
rules sorting e-mail into about 30 different "inbox" folders.
2. Ruthless deletion of stuff I know I won't need.
3. Explicit filing of "keeper" messages in one
of over 300 archival folders.
Notice that this strategy does *not*
lead to the "empty inbox" so many people seem to believe
in. In fact, some of my 30 inboxes can get totally
out of control while I keep up with others reasonably
Most of us won't devote so much energy to e-mail
storage. So Google tells us that in managing our e-mail,
there has to be a simpler path. The question is: How
much effort I'm willing to put in up front. As a packrat
surrounded by eternal mess, my life is living proof
that I cannot organize anything. So for me, Gmail's
model is perfect.
A colleague, Mike Zakhem, concurs: "The idea of indexing
your messages is a new and very Google-centric thing
that Gmail has brought to the e-mail game. A lot of
e-mail clients will let you search for a message, but
often those searches are tedious and time-consuming
(e.g., what folder should I look in? Should I look
by sender address or sender name? etc.). Google has
leveraged its technology to do for its e-mail what
it does for its Web searches.
In general, the world is moving away from simple
file systems that can only put an object (a file) on
one place in a hierarchy. Many institutions use content
management systems or other database back-ends to replace
the simple UNIX-file-system hierarchy for hosting Web
content. The file system that Microsoft is creating
for Longhorn is basically an SQL database management
system. These systems give us great flexibility in
managing information and metadata. But great flexibility
could imply a great pre-processing burden. The question
is, for everyday streams of random data, such as e-mail,
will folks put in enough metadata as new items arrive or
will a smart post-processing search engine suffice?
My friend Ed Vielmetti, who for many years has worked
to harness the power of the Internet to help people
share, describes Gmail's notion of organization this
In the knowledge management world, Google's Gmail
seems to support a "big heap of laundry" approach to
storing your memories. It does have category tags you
can apply to things, but just imagining how many categories
you might apply over 1G of mail makes me blanch.
Privacy Part One: Fear of Robots
As soon as the world learned that Gmail's business
model called for ads to appear in your message display ads
with subject matter determined by the content of your
message the privacy community went apoplectic.
They simply could not countenance the notion of a robot
reading through your every message and serving up ad
content based on the words of your correspondence.
After much global hand-wringing, it appears the world
sorts into these categories:
- Those who will never use Gmail
because they don't trust a robot to keep their secrets.
- Those who will never knowingly send to
a Gmail user because they don't trust a robot to
keep their secrets.
- Those who are willing to trust the
robot in exchange for a highly functional Webmail
and 1 gigabyte of storage space.
I fall into the last category. The robot reading
my mail matters not one whit to me. Robots read my
mail every day. Every mail service provider worth its
salt offers an anti-spam service. That's a robot reading
your mail. Most good service providers also offer anti-virus
screening as well. And that's another robot reading
What seems to stick in some people's craw is the
idea that the robot reading your mail is trying to
understand it at the same time. It's scanning the content
and tailoring the ads to match your discussion. Of
course, Google the Web search service takes the words
you type and pulls ads out of its inventory based on that content but
apparently it seems much more personal when you've
logged in under your own identity.
The targeted ads are unobtrusive, about like the
targeted ads that appear when you do Google searches.
Usually ads relate to the subject matter of the message
reasonably well. Figure 2 below shows what a typical
ad looks like.
I'm not sure how prominent information architecture
guru Lou Rosenfeld feels about being matched up with
vocabulary and juggling trainers, but you get the idea.
Often the ads can be useful; if you get a message that
mentions Lincoln, Nebraska, you'll get tourist and
civic ad links.
Sometimes the targeting goes hilariously astray;
consider this e-mail from Amazon to one of its customers.
As you see in Figure 3 above, an ad for Seattle comes
The Gmail ad program isn't very worrisome if you
think of things one message at a time. The privacy
community may have a point if you consider the scope
of the scanning across entire mailboxes. Gmail actually
chides you if you let your mailbox become empty. It
makes it hard to delete messages with no convenient
Trash icon or button. There's not even a way to delete
all the messages in your Spam folder.
Put this all together, and it's clear Google doesn't
want you to empty out your mailbox; it wants you to
leave a lot of mail lying around. The obvious conclusion:
Google is data mining all your mail not
just the mail that you're reading right now or the
mail that just arrived. (See Figure 4 above.)
Now perhaps that just means Google is tuning and
re-tuning the ad-matching algorithms. But maybe Google's
looking across customers' mailboxes constantly as part
of the tuning process. Maybe some sort of network analysis
is being done of the kinds of things you and your correspondents
talk about and which ad links you click on individually
and collectively. The more the Google robot co-mingles
data as it analyzes mail content, the more squeamish
some people will become.
Privacy Part Two: A Gig of Your Life Is a Big
Suppose someone guessed your Hotmail password. That
could lead to embarrassment, but, since you can only
store so much information in a few megabytes, your
exposure is limited. If you're an active e-mail user
and you send and receive attachments, your exposure
might be only a few weeks.
Now let's imagine you're a Gmail user and someone
guesses your password. Your exposure could be years
of your life. The target is bigger, as is the payoff
for accessing the target.
But guessing your password is only one way someone
might gain access to your Gmail. One obvious point
of attack is a hacker. I asked Wayne Rosing, vice president
of engineering for Google, about the threat of such
a large target. Rosing said that Google has a very
capable team of security experts guarding the perimeter: "We're
committed to upholding the absolute highest levels
of privacy. It's not really an issue of how big the
mailbox is; it's a question of how good your security
is." I asked if Gmail encrypts customer mail just in
case someone gets past the perimeter. He said no, "encryption
is computationally pricey."
The bottom line is that if a hacker did break into
the perimeter and could access Gmail servers, all customer
e-mail would be in clear text.
The privacy community probably worries less about
hackers breaking in than in the government using the
Patriot Act to get in without knocking the doors down.
Hmm, access to years of a person's life combined
with Google quality search as well. You can imagine
how appealing this might be to a government pursuing
suspected terrorists or tax evaders.
Google's Gmail privacy statement is superficially
reassuring, but it says Google must comply with "government" demands
for access. But which government? I asked Rosing
if my Gmail mailbox might be stored on a server in
China, where the Patriot Act pales. He indicated that
Google wouldn't store data in nations where it would
be subject to government invasion and that in any event
Google has no data centers in China.
Here again, I think the privacy community has a valid
concern. Before Gmail, your personal mail was scattered
across many places, with your most personal information
probably residing on a hard drive under your control.
Gmail invites millions of people to move their personal
discussions to a common pool and to leave large
amounts online. I claim that Gmail will cause the largest
migration of personal information in the history of
If Google has a mission statement, it is its famous
dictum of "do no evil." When I talk to Google officials,
I sense they really believe in that creed. However,
I think perhaps they are a tad naïve, not realizing
that external forces may cause them to invade privacy
in ways they've never imagined.
Privacy Part Three: Flaws in Gmail Are the Real
Once I drove up to an ATM and was surprised to see
on the screen, "Another Transaction?"
A little slow on the uptake, I took a second to realize
that the car pulling away had left their card in the
machine in mid-transaction. Hmm.... Tempting.... Gmail
has a couple of related design flaws that ATM designers
anticipated decades ago.
Scenario one: You log into a public terminal say
in a public library or a cybercafé. You forget
to click the "Sign Out" button before you get up and
The next person who walks up to that terminal now
has your entire life at their fingertips years
of e-mail, efficiently searchable. Pretend you are
a detective or a snoop, and think about some of the
searches you might type in if you sat down and saw
someone else's entire life history in the browser window.
Your life history remains exposed as long as that computer
is turned on and the Web browser remains open. The
session never expires.
Scenario two: You visit your boss or a colleague
and quickly check your Gmail for that report you mailed
last week. You forget to sign out. When you go back
into your own office, you sign back into Gmail. Everything
seems perfectly fine. But the other Gmail session is
still active. In fact, it's automatically updating
your Inbox listing. Your boss can read your new mail,
search your old mail, or even send new messages from
your mailbox indefinitely. You have no way to
close his view into your life and, if he doesn't send
or delete, you have no way to detect it.
Gmail's rivals figured out these exposures eons ago
and implemented session timeouts and multiple login
detections as remedies. While the privacy community
wails over a robot serving up relevant ads, they're
missing the entire point. (See Figure 5 below.)
These flaws shouldn't be hard to fix. Because Gmail
can expose years of your life, Gmail should "time out" aggressively maybe
after only 15 minutes of inactivity. If you time out,
Gmail should prompt for your ID and password before
resuming your session. (It should not log you
out and send you back to a fresh login.)
It should be easy for Gmail to detect when you log
into a second session. How should the Gmail system
react? At a minimum, it should log out the first session the
one you left logged in for the boss to read.
What surprises me is that Google didn't "get it" and
address these issues long before the public beta. My
guess is that it took such a blank slate approach that
it blanked out on the public terminal issue.
The other surprise is that privacy activists jumped
all over other issues without seeing the obviousness
of these flaws.
The Viral Marketing Campaign
Besides the curious tactic of a confusing April 1
launch, Google also chose to introduce Gmail to the
public using a new tactic. Instead of handing out accounts
to reporters from the tech media and national papers,
Google gave "tokens" to employees that they could use
to invite friends to join. Later, beta testers might
log in to see an invitation to invite their friends
to join the beta.
A fascinating experiment in social networking ensued.
People with Gmail accounts began sending mail to their
friends, who in turn wanted in on the beta. Some people
began selling their "tokens" on eBay.
In effect, Google's slow rollout became a viral marketing
strategy. The media wrote about Gmail, but only a few
people had accounts. Those who did bragged to friends
and posted screen shots on their blogs. Welcome to
the Gmail Witch Project. In terms of creating buzz,
it was brilliant.
However, the strategy may not have been universally
brilliant. If Google had given Gmail accounts to the
Katie Hafners and Walter Mossbergs of the world up
front and let them see how the targeted advertising
works, the initial furor over privacy might've been
There's another issue, one tough nut that Google
will have to crack: How do you prevent someone from
signing up for 50 Gmail accounts in order to get 50
gigabytes of free online storage? That's always been
possible with Hotmail and Yahoo! mail, but it's pretty
hard to stitch together a serious free data store at
a pace of 4 megs at a time. At 1 gig per shot, the
stakes change. So how is Google going to limit this
activity? I can't think of a reasonable way for a free
service to keep people from setting up multiple identities.
Google's Global Infrastructure Advantages
The economics of Gmail just seem impossible to data
administrators worldwide especially those who
administer e-mail services. After the announcement
proved to be true, I began asking tech types a simple
question: What is the cost of a gigabyte of reliable,
backed-up, broadband-connected-to-the Internet storage?
I was surprised that I couldn't find a ready answer
from the folks who I thought would know. Dr. Charles
Severance, my globe-trotting research professor friend
at the University of Michigan, had no ready answer,
but a day later came up with a figure of $1 to $2 per
gig per year. Hmmm. So if Google signs up 20,000,000
Gmail users, it will need to cover $20M to $40M per
year for storage alone. Or to put it another way, Google
needs 1-2 per year per subscriber to cover storage
costs. That's certainly easy to imagine. Not everyone
who signs up will fill the quota.
One person who manages the campus e-mail service
for a large Midwestern university simply could not
believe the Gmail announcement. Although disk is
cheap and storage costs have been plummeting for 2
decades, there are many more costs than just disk. "There's
no way they can afford to back up that much data!" he
exclaimed. "The costs of tapes and tape drives and
personnel will kill them!"
Ahh, but that assumes that Google is backing
things up to tape. Google famously uses low-cost commodity
servers and the cheapest disks that money can buy.
(One rumor has it that in the early days Google assembled
its own Linux PC servers from commodity parts and didn't
even bother to put the covers on the components. Suppose
Google's thinking differently? Suppose it's backing
up not to tape, but to disk? As e-mail administrators
worldwide started doing back-of-the-envelope calculations,
other folks began theorizing as to what Google's global
infrastructure is really like.
A few years ago Google admitted that it had over
10,000 servers in production. The Web has grown since
then and so has Google's dominance. How many servers
does Google have online in mid-2004? Some smart folks
took Google's SEC filings, assumed minimum cost servers,
and calculate that Google has about 100,000 servers
in production worldwide.
It's not just the raw count of servers, of course.
An intriguing posting to Dave Farber's "Interesting
People" mailing list suggests that Google has built
a global infrastructure than no one can match. Suresh
Ramasubramanian suggested what Google might have built:
Google has taken the last 10 years of systems software
research out of university labs and built their own
proprietary, production quality system. What is this
platform that Google is building? It's a distributed
computing platform that can manage Web-scale data sets
on 100,000-node server clusters. It includes a petabyte,
distributed, fault-tolerant file system, distributed
RPC code, probably network shared memory and process
migration. And a datacenter management system which
lets a handful of ops engineers effectively run 100,000
servers. Any of these projects could be the sole focus
of a start-up....
This computer is running the world's top search engine,
a social networking service, a shopping price comparison
engine, a new e-mail service, and a local search/yellow
pages engine. What will they do next with the world's
biggest computer and most advanced operating system?
Tech visionary George Gilder told me: "Google is
exploiting the key abundances of the era: bandwidth
and storage, summed up in my model as 'Storewidth,'
in order to supply what is scarce: Just-in-time information.
Google is the prime Storewidth company." Gilder calculates
the cost of storage at about $2.33 per gigabyte per
year, including depreciation and maintenance. But he
thinks Google enjoys other advantages:
Since Google must sustain these costs anyway to support
its search capacity, advertising model, and news services,
I believe that their marginal cost for supplying e-mail
is close to zero when the increasing volume of usage
of all services is considered. Market share and volume
are everything in these front-loaded Internet services.
With more numbers and better targeted advertising,
Google will make out like bandits, without the downside
of encountering Wyatt Earp at the FTC corral.
How Is the Competition Reacting?
If your competition is indeed running the world's
biggest computer and most advanced operating system,
how do you react? How do you react when the competition
offers mailboxes 100 to 200 times larger than what
you brag about?
Figure 6 at right shows how Yahoo!, weeks after Gmail
was announced, is still bragging about a paltry 4 megabyte
Any company selling a rival Webmail service must
be sweating. I repeatedly asked Netaddress.com, which
sells Webmail accounts with 50 megabytes of storage
for about a buck per meg per year, how it reacted;
Netaddress.com did not reply.
Other companies that might be affected include vendors
of desktop e-mail client software. Gmail is so good
that I can imagine many people abandoning their Eudora
or their Outlook. (In corporate environments, however,
things may differ; I suspect the network security manager
for Ford Motor Company would not be too thrilled to
have company discussions housed on Google's servers.)
Vendors for add-on software may also be affected.
Caelo, a software vendor based in British Columbia,
releases an add-on called NEO that provides a fast-indexed
search of your Outlook folders. A spokesperson for
the company said that Gmail may "legitimize the idea
of fast searching, so that people will demand fast
searching inside Outlook. Our sales may increase because
Here We Go Again
Whether you're a potential Gmail user, a rival Webmail
vendor, a university e-mail administrator, or otherwise,
you can't ignore Gmail. Clearly, a new game is on.
GROOVY GMAIL TRICKS
Many folks use their e-mail to manage their lives,
keeping up with what they need to work on, deleting
items as tasks are completed. Gmail could help people
organize their lives in a variety of ways:
- Chuck Severance works with developers at
Stanford, MIT, Indiana, Michigan, and elsewhere,
building a collaboration
environment called Sakai. E-mail plays a vital role
in a multi-institution development project. Chuck
prefers his familiar mail client software on his
but he finds Gmail's ability to search old mail and
to group related conversations into a single thread
very useful. So he reads his mail using conventional
tools, but he auto-forwards a copy of all e-mail
to his Gmail account. When he needs to dig up a past
a quick login to Gmail and a quick search bring up
the relevant conversation quickly. Gmail also lets
him log in quickly over the Web if he's away from
his familiar client software. (Chuck's suggestion
Gmail developers: Invent MailRank, analogous to the
famous PageRank algorithm that forms the core of
Google's success, e.g., "Put e-mail from the boss
at the top of the hit list.")
- If you have multiple personas day
job, consulting work, family life you might
be tempted to use a separate mailbox for each persona.
labeling, threading, and searching capabilities could
help you organize it all in one mailbox.
- The threaded conversation grouping is also
useful for taming a chatty mailing list. From time
to time I join Sigia-L, a listserv for information
architects, teeming with the output of an unruly
and chatty lot. Collapsing 30 postings on a single
into one item in the inbox is tremendously helpful.
- People such as authors, consultants, and
speakers may long for the services of a rich corporate
But Gmail could offer a poor man's document management
system: Leave old PowerPoint files, project plans,
even contracts in your Gmail archive, using labeling
and searching to fetch what you need on demand.
- Searcher's esteemed editor, Barbara
Quint, had another suggestion for Gmail, but it required
switching Web search engines from Google itself to
Amazon's new A9 Web search engine. Don't feel bereft.
Google supplies the searching in A9. Here's what
bq had to say in a Newsbreak entitled "Amazon Introduces
New Web Search Engine" [http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb040426-2.shtml]:
Most of the reviewers of the new site have praised
it for its appeal to end-user searchers, but pointed
out that, at this point, it would have limited appeal
to power searchers. On the other hand, it might have
some appeal to intermediary searchers working with
clients and doing extensive Web searching. Since A9
holds search histories centrally and allows toolbar
users to annotate result lists, one could envision
professional searchers using the service as a collaborative
tool. Use A9 for searching and annotating search results.
Share the registration password with clients or colleagues
working in a collaborative mode. That circle of associates
can search and annotate their own results, or just
expand the annotations on entries provided by others.
Of course, one would recommend that the user identification
tying all this together not be connected to anyone's
credit card, as it might if based on an Amazon.com
registration. However, it should be simple to set up
an e-mail identity. In fact, if one used Google's new
Gmail, one could add a gigabyte of storage to the project's
And all for free. God bless the Web.