This week I signed up for a free e-mail account on Google's new Gmail service. Of course, there are many free e-mail services, such as HotMail, Yahoo, MyWay.com, and others. However, Google's new free Gmail e-mail service has several features not found in the others, including:
One gigabyte of file storage area. With one gigabyte (1,000 megabytes) of free storage, you never need to delete another email. Just archive everything and use Gmail's search to find what you need. You should be able to save every e-mail message for years. In fact, Google recommends that you never delete any e-mails. If you decide you no longer want a message in your Inbox, just hit the 'Archive' button and the message will still be available in 'All Mail' or through a search. Not bad for a free service!
Gmail's built-in Google search can quickly find any e-mail message that is stored in your mailbox. You should never need to file another message or create another folder.
Messages are stored in "conversation order." Each item in your Inbox is more than an email. It's an entire conversation, containing the original note and all the replies to it. When a new message arrives, the entire conversation moves to the top of your inbox. You can quickly see all the message sent to or received from that person.
Address auto-complete: start entering the addressee's e-mail address. If the address is already known, the remainder of the address will automatically be inserted by Google.
User-defined filters for incoming mail.
Text ads and related pages that are relevant to the content of your messages.
That last item is one that has generated controversy. All free e-mail systems display paid advertising. After all, that's how the bills get paid: the e-mail provider sells advertising space. However, the one difference with Google's Gmail is that the ads are "context sensitive." These operate in a similar fashion to the ads you see when using Google's search engine.
That is, if you are reading an e-mail that has the word "genealogy" in it, you will probably see ads for genealogy-related products and Web sites. If the e-mail has a sentence of "you should see my new Ford pickup truck," Gmail may display an ad for Dodge or Nissan or Mazda or some other competitor. Of course, if the e-mail has a sentence that says, "Bob has developed a bad coke habit" (meaning cocaine), you may see an ad for Pepsi-Cola on your screen.
Some observers worry that such context-sensitive advertising may constitute an invasion of privacy. Google has assured everyone that the examination of words in the text of the message is for the sole purpose of displaying advertising; there is no data collection and no forwarding of your personal information to a third party. I do expect that Google will know how many times a particular advertisement was displayed although they will not know to whom it was displayed.
Personally, I couldn’t care less. First of all, e-mail does not have the legal rights to privacy that regular mail has. Second, this is a free service. If I am uncomfortable with Google's advertising policy, I can always go to a paid service. And I have. I don't like advertising of any sort on the screen. I have paid a few dollars each year for several years so that I can have a personal e-mail account on another service without advertising. I never liked the ads on Hotmail or Yahoo or even on AOL's for-pay service. I don't like them on Gmail either, but I know that many others will not complain.
I found the user interface of Gmail to be excellent. If you have used any modern e-mail program, you can learn to use Gmail in about a minute or so. The one exception might be the capability of searching through tens of thousands of stored e-mail messages: that might take two minutes to learn. There is no user’s manual, and none is needed. Even computer novices should be able to figure out the use of Gmail quickly.
Gmail uses labels to give you the functionality of folders, but with more flexibility. In Gmail, a single conversation can have several labels, so you're not forced to choose one particular folder for each message you receive. That way, if a conversation covers more than one topic, you can retrieve it with any of the labels that you've applied to it. And, of course, you can always search for it.
The user-defined filters for incoming mail are far better in Gmail than anything I can find in Hotmail or in Yahoo Mail. The use of filters is especially useful for very active newsgroups that you may subscribe to; Gmail will filter all messages received from a given newsgroup, labeled it appropriately, and moved out of your in-box. For instance, I subscribe to a newsgroup for Mazda Miata owners that typically produces more than 100 e-mail messages per day! With simpler e-mail programs, that is a lot of messages in the in-box to wade through. With Gmail or any of the other better e-mail programs, all those messages can be automatically filtered and placed into the "Miata newsgroup" section, which I can read at my leisure. My in-box only shows normal e-mail messages. Tens of thousands of Miata-specific messages are stored in the special Miata section. Of course, Gmail's advanced search capabilities allow me to search all those messages for specific words or phrases at any time, should I choose to do so. If I am later looking for information on Miata gear ratios, it shouldn't take more than a few seconds to find all the stored e-mail messages that contain information about that topic.
The most difficult thing about Gmail right now is obtaining an account. Google's managers apparently did not want to turn on the service and immediately have several million users sign up. Such a sudden increase in load would crash many servers. Instead, the Google management team devised a clever method of controlling the sign-up process to only allow a small but growing number of new subscribers every day.
The only means of obtaining a Gmail account during the test period is to be invited by an existing Gmail user. Once you accept the invitation and then obtain a Gmail account of your own, you are then allowed to invite two others. That is all you get: after you have sent two invitations, the system will not generate a third. This method restricts growth to a reasonable rate. This process is expected to last throughout the beta test period but will probably be lifted once the testing ends.
Sorry folks, I have already used my two invitations.
Gmail is in beta test right now. As might be expected with any beta effort, the service has had some problems. In recent days it has not always been available. I have seen outages lasting for a few seconds to several hours. It appears that the outages are not universal; when I am unable to log in, others can do so. When I am able to log in later, others may find themselves locked out. Availability problems are commonplace in beta test efforts and undoubtedly will be solved before Gmail goes into production.
All in all, I am very impressed by Gmail but not so impressed that I will switch to it. I normally use Eudora for e-mail, a program loaded in my computer that I like even better than Gmail's Web interface. However, Gmail is far better than the anemic e-mail packages available from AOL, Hotmail or Yahoo. Gmail has the extra advantage that I can easily access my mail when traveling or using a borrowed computer. Even the tens of thousands of old messages can be stored on Gmail, not on my local computer's hard drive.
While I am experimenting with Google's Gmail service so that I can write about it, I doubt if it will ever be my primary e-mail address. However, Gmail makes a great backup mail service, and I will probably keep it for that purpose. I may switch my 40 or 50 newsgroup subscriptions to Gmail as well. While I will not use Gmail as my primary mail service, I suspect that many people who do not already own a decent e-mail program will prefer Gmail over whatever they are presently using. It certainly is better than AOL's mail service! It is also free of charge.
Further information about Gmail can be found at http://gmail.google.com/gmail/help/about.html