“One high school crush: In return for a Gmail invite I will email you an image of a notebook page with all of the necessary doodles.”
“There will be little hearts with our initials in them, options on the way I’ll write my married name, and a rough draft of a note expressing how much I’m longing for you. Image will be in black and white, because I’m fresh out of magic markers.”
The above message is not a bizarre take on the lonely-hearts column, but one of thousands of entries on http://www.gmailswap.com, a website devoted to bringing Google’s new e-mail service, Gmail – the “killer app” of 2004 – to the masses.
The uninitiated post up desperate pleas for a Gmail account on the site, and the lucky few with access choose who deserves to be “invited” to join. Other offers include one used husband, a box of loveliness, the punchline of a knock-knock joke and the four elements. One eager mother even offered up her five-year-old’s letter to Santa.
When Google announced in April that it would be taking on Hotmail, Yahoo! and the rest by offering its own webmail service, internet forums were buzzing with the excitement and anticipation that accompanies any announcement by the world’s favourite search engine.
The suspense was heightened further by the fact that Gmail would only be available to a trusted group of employees and friends, who, in time, would be allowed to invite people to join them in the secret circle. Hence Gmailswap, a non-profit organisation (motto: Because People Are Nice) set up to give people a chance to get their hands on an account.
Apart from the one-upmanship, however, why should you change from your old account to Gmail?
Google’s primary boast is the space offered to all users – 1000 megabytes (MB), enough to hold 500,000 pages of emails, according to the company. Hotmail and Yahoo previously offered 2MB and 4MB respectively, but have since upped their free storage limits to 250MB and 100MB in response.
Google also offers a search facility that allows you to search both the web and their own mail. This makes finding individual mails a lot easier than trawling through the subject lines.
Gmail is also billed as being more user-friendly and having a cleaner interface than its rivals. When Google launched its search engine in 1998, the market was already crowded with giants such as Yahoo! and AltaVista. Yet in a few short years, Google became, and remains, by far the most popular search engine on the web, so much so that the verb “to google” is now a generic term.
One of the reasons attributed to this rise was Google’s clean, white interface: the homepage carried little more than the logo and a dialogue box, and all ads were listed beside the search results. Out went the flashing banners, pages crammed full of data and endless pop-up ads.
Google now aims to repeat history by taking on the established giants and once again it aims to use innovation and economy of design as its primary weapons. The overriding advantage of Gmail is the ability to be able to summon up any mail, from any contact and any date, with minimum fuss. And it looks great to boot. What, then, are the disadvantages?
There are a few minor quibbles, according to web development and usability guru Mr Paul McClean, from TDH Interactive: “Contacts can’t be listed as a group, so each one has to be entered separately. Gmail won’t work on some browsers and platforms, including Mac OS9, and old versions of Firefox, Explorer and Netscape. Plus, there is no access to a POP3 server, so you can’t link it to your Outlook account.”
“However, these complaints are all related to the fact that Gmail is still being tested, and will be sorted out by the time the full version is available. The biggest problem for many people is the privacy issue,” he says.
The privacy issue concerns scares that Gmail will “read” your mail. Ads in Gmail are placed in the same way that ads are placed alongside Google search results. Automated search technology scans the content of your emails and matches ads relevant to that content.
The original announcement caused a furore amongst privacy campaigners and one California state senator, Ms Liz Figueroa, tried to block the service through the courts. The campaigners did win some concessions. Google will not be allowed to collect personal data and give them to third parties or produce records using the data, and all searches must be conducted in real time.
Despite all this, it must be borne in mind that many webmail services already scan mail to block spam. Google assures all users that the ads are family-friendly and that “no humans will read the content of your email in order to target advertisements”.
Even at this early stage, Gmail’s success can be measured by the frantic response of rivals who have redesigned their interfaces, increased their storage limits and condemned Google’s alleged “‘privacy invasion”. The full global rollout should begin in a few months. Until then, all you have to do is worry about getting your hands on an invite.
© 2004 The Irish Times