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Announced on March 31, 2004, 5 minutes from April 1, 2004, Gmail is one of the off-shoots of Google.com. Gmail, still in a testing period, will offer free webmail services with one gigabyte of storage space.

At first, many doubted the veracity of Google's press release announcing Gmail. Google has a long history of April Fools' Day jokes; the date of the press release, the claim of one gigabyte of free storage, and the humorous tone of the press release caused many to think this was another one of these infamous pranks.

Gmail though, is for real. After the testing period is over, they will offer free webmail services. Some of the features will include: automatic grouping of an email and its responses into a conversation, a mail filterer, a labeling system, and future POP3 access of web accounts. The downside? Ads. However, the only advertisements will be the text adds Google has had for a long time.

An issue which has arisen is the potential loss of privacy with Gmail. The text adds will be based upon the content of the incoming messages to a Gmail account. Many privacy advocates feel that this is analogous to Google reading your email; however, computers will automatically search email for keywords, it's not as if Larry the tech will be reading each and everyone of your love letters to your e-mistress.

The one gigabyte of storage space seems ludicrous, but it really isn't. It will serve to attract many users to Gmail webmail, yet not end up costing all that much storage space. The average user probably won't even scratch the surface of their gigabyte. Gmail will more than make up for the occasional user taking up the full gigabyte by the number of users they will attract.

These are some early thoughts after having used Gmail for almost two weeks now. It takes a while to get used to your inbox looking a bit like, well, Google, but once you get past that, it's fairly user friendly. Mac users though could have problem with using Gmail in Safari.

The biggest issue with Gmail of course, is privacy. Apparently, each email is scanned and you are then targetted with ads specific to your email content. I can see why privacy advocates would be up in arms over that. As some Google-watchers have pointed out as well, the issue of mail being sent to Gmail is not addressed by the Gmail privacy policy. There are other concerns: Google has not set specific, finite limits of how long it will retain user account, email, and transactional data. And Google has not set clear written policies about its data sharing between business units. 31 privacy and civil liberty organizations have written an open letter to Google asking it to suspend Gmail and address privacy concerns. How this pans out only time will tell- there is already a bill in the California State Senate (Bill SB 1822) which deals with Gmail's privacy issue. Google has responded by saying that it does not correlate data and there are protective mechanisms in place to ensure that it doesn't happen. It is important to remember that Google anyway has the power to correlate IP addresses and search queries- again, something that Google officials claim does not take place.

That apart, Gmail offers a HUGE amount of space- 1000 MB and you are encouraged to 'archive' not delete. This means that somewhere in Googleland all your emails are being stored for retrieval whenever you want. This is particularly useful for bulk email users. If you open a Gmail account and go to your inbox, you'll find that the left hand column has the following links: Inbox, Starred, Sent Mail, All Mail, Spam, Trash. The curious link of course is 'All Mail'- this allows you to view those emails that you have 'archived'. Deleted emails are sent to Trash but I'm not sure how frequently this is emptied, since a number of my emails dating to April 21 are still there in the Trash can.

Google allows you to search through your messages, a very convenient tool. The search engine is pretty refined and includes categories like 'Doesn't have the words', 'Has the words', 'Has attachment'. You can also narrow down your search by limiting the dates for the search or by adding the name of the person the email may have originated from and so on. This is a pretty useful tool, although since I only have about a 100 emails in my inbox that's not much use right now. With 1000 MB space though, this might be the most critical add-on element that Gmail offers.

Another feature, unique to Gmail is that of 'conversations'. When I receive an email from Yahoo or Hotmail, each fresh email appears on a new line in my inbox and any reply to my reply will again appear on a fresh line. But with Gmail, each email is stacked, on upon another like a deck of cards. And so if you and I have sent each other 6 emails each today (and you use Hotmail and I use Gmail), my inbox will show only one line which will say 'me, your name (6)' indicating the total number of emails. When I open that to read the latest email, the rest of them will be a click away and I can see the top line of each email that I or you have sent. So for someone like me, who sends many emails to my father, usually short one liners, letting him know I'm fine, this doesn't clog up my inbox with one line emails. It stacks them all up neatly and makes it easier to retrieve them as well.

The ads that appear on Gmail have been another source of controversy. Since Gmail scans all your emails, the ads are relevant to the content of what you send or receive. Again, it is fairly easy to see why this would raise the hackles of privacy advocates. While the scanning of my emails worries me, the ads are very non intrusive and appear in a corner and are not as irritating as some have suggested.

Keyboard shortcuts are another Gmail innovation. These are exactly what the name suggests and can be activated if you so wish. So you can type c and it will take you a box to compose a new email or you can click 'j' and go to a newer conversation or 'k' and go to an older one. There are many such shortcuts and I suppose that this will be refined over time with customer suggestions.

Instead of sorting out email into various folders, Gmail has 'labels'. So you label each conversation depending on what category it falls into. Interestingly, Gmail gives you the option of using more than one label for an email. So an email on an anti war march from a friend in Oxford for me, would be labelled both 'Activist stuff' and 'Personal Oxford'. Then you can click on any label and retrieve the emails particular to it.

Gmail also automatically refreshed itself. This means that if you keep the page open for a sufficient period of time, it will refresh itself to see if you have any new emails- not unlike Outlook Express. Again, this is very convenient for those who use office or university ethernet connections and keep a single webpage with their email open for a long period of time.

Finally, there are some features of Gmail that are yet to be tested or are absent e.g. there is no option for adding a signature. Also, I am not sure what scanning program is used to prevent viruses. Gmail is also still not compatible with Outlook Express or Eudora, to the best of my knowledge. Finally, how successful Gmail will be in stopping spam, again, only time will tell.

This is an addition to the bit about ads. I got loads of questions on how the ads worked. I have to admit that I hadn't looked at the ads carefully enough as they are fairly non intrusive (these are not pop up ads- they appear on the right hand column). Anyway, having studied the ads for a few days, I've come to the conclusion that Gmail probably scans the email id from which email is being sent and caters to that rather than simply to the content of the emails. I could be wrong. But I have before two random emails from my boyfriend who's with me at Oxford, (and so his email id is name.surname@hiscollege.oxford.ac.uk) and i have two ads- one for an Open Day at Cambridge and the other for an Open day at the psychology department in Oxford. I've also got an ad, with a letter from a friend in an US university (and with a corresponding email id) for the Tech magazine of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To offer an opinion on Gmail, as a person who has been reading a ton about it to decide whether to use it as my new email account, it is a BETA. The fact that google has not offered any firm commitment on how long they plan on maintaining accounts (though the account does terminate after 9 months of no activity) is a direct consequence of the fact that they are not yet sure they will offer accounts at all. The Ads are less intrusive that those that I get at the top of the page for my Earthlink webmail, and that's an account I pay $50/month for (ADSL). The fact that Google uses a computer to parse my email and target ads makes me happy! I will get ads that have some chance of appealing to me, instead of "Find your college classmates." I'm not even in college yet. They do say, in their Privacy Policy:
"Google employees do not access the content of any mailboxes unless you specifically request them to do so (for example, if you are having technical difficulties accessing your account) or if required by law, to maintain our system, or to protect Google or the public."

Other than that, I don't know how I lived without threaded conversations, and searching my email is absolutely the coolest thing ever (I don't really use it yet, due to the fact that I'm not sure I'll switch over, and it is still a beta.)

In any case, both the hype and the "concerns" are overratted, but to see a seriously paranoid take on the matter, http://gmail-is-too-creepy.com/ for a good laugh.

In later news, Gmail doubled their storage space to two gigabytes, and has announced their plan for "Infinity Plus One" Gigabytes of storage space; It's going to hit 3 Gigabytes by January 1st 2006, and who knows where they will stop it.

What is Gmail? Of course, the easy answer is that it's a webmail system that set a new standard in the amount of space available to users - 1 gigabyte each. By comparison, most other webmail providers (eg Hotmail, Yahoo) were offering between 2 and 10 megabytes. Most of these have now increased their offerings to up to 100 MB, still not as much as Gmail but more than enough for most things. But hey, diskspace is cheap.

Gmail also has some clever (read intrusive) processing that allows them to target ads specifically at you. This can be good and bad - at least the ads are targetting at you. But there are privacy concerns. That said, if anybody is storing confidential data on a remote webmail server, they need to think about that first.

Gmail is more than this though.

Gmail is, in my opinion, a huge marketing experiment.

Mail services come and go. Some are better than others, and Gmail is one of the better ones. And if they had sent out announcements, put it on the google.com website, it would have taken off slowly.

By making it "by invitation only" (who got the first invitation?), it makes it special. Kinda like Orkut. Which is also owned by google. It made people want to have a Gmail account, just so they could say "Hey, I've got gmail, I've got invites, who wants one". And by getting people onto it, they get more people they can target ads to, and therefore more money they can raise from their sponsors.

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