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Google Mail, Put To The Test

Search engine company Google announced recently that it will release a web-based email service. Despite some terrific features, the response has not been universally positive.

Privacy groups and at least one legislator have complained that Google plans to make money from the service by displaying "context-sensitive" advertising based on the content of people's messages.

I've been testing a not-yet-ready-for release version of the Gmail service and my overall impression is quite positive, privacy issues aside.

Though it still has some missing features and rough edges, it is clearly the best web-based email system I've used and - at least for some users - it's arguably better than computer-based email programs such as Microsoft Outlook.

Before I go on, remember, Gmail is in its testing stage and is subject to change by the time it's available to the public, probably later this year.

Some Advantages

There are two big advantages to Google's Gmail service over other web-based mail systems. First, Google plans to give each user a gigabyte of storage, more than a hundred times what other services offer. The other advantage is that it uses Google's famed search engine to make it very fast and easy to find old incoming and outgoing messages.

Email has become more than just a way to communicate. It's one of the ways we track our lives. If someone sends me directions to a meeting, I usually wind up having to retrieve that message - perhaps weeks later - when it's time to find my way there.

I have messages in my inbox that contain important phone numbers not to mention old messages that I just want to re-read. I even use email to send myself reminders, knowing that I'll be able to retrieve them later. With Gmail that retrieval is easy and, if the company makes good on its promises, that information may remain available to me for the rest of my life.

Like Hotmail, Yahoo Mail and other web-based email services, Gmail is accessible via any web browser, which means that you don't need special software or access to your own computer. You can retrieve and send mail from a friend's home or office, a cyber café or a hotel business center. You could even use a web-enabled cell phone or personal digital assistant, although reading and sending email from a cell phone is a bit awkward.

Massive Storage, Fast Searching

The big differences between this service and other web-based mail programs is the amount of messages you can store and the ability to search for your messages using the search engine that made Google famous.

Most other web mail services lack a search capability and limit the users of free accounts to from two to four megabytes - a fraction of Gmail's 1,000 megabyte limit. My free Hotmail account is usually - literally - filled with spam, leaving no room for legitimate messages.

Even email programs that you load on your PC have limits when it comes to search and storage. Microsoft Outlook, for example, will become very slow and unreliable if you don't periodically delete (or at least archive) old messages. Also, the search function in Outlook is very slow. And searching through archives files is so time-consuming that it's basically impractical.

Google says that it will store user data for as long as customers keep their accounts alive. Since the account will be free, that could be for the rest of your life, assuming Google remains in business and doesn't someday change its mind about the service. I've been using the service for about a week and have nearly 2,000 messages stored and it takes only a couple of seconds to retrieve a message based on search words. You can search for any word or name or use the options feature to fine tune the search.

The service has some other nice features including the option to automatically assign mail to folders based on words that appear in the message. You can also have the service automatically assign labels to messages as an easy way of finding them later. Another nice feature lets you place stars on messages to assign them some significance.

There are some rough edges. So far, the spam filter is pretty mediocre - not nearly as good as the Spamnet filter I added to my copy of Microsoft Outlook. Also, it doesn't yet support "pop3," which would allow you to use Gmail to retrieve mail directed at your regular ISP or business email address.

Using a technique supported by my ISP, I figured out a way to automatically forward all my mail to Gmail but not all email services have that capability. The service also won't allow you to import a contact list from Outlook or another other program but this is a pre-release of the service and it's possible they are likely to add some features before it's available to the public.

Privacy Concerns

Privacy advocates have expressed concern that Google plans to make money from the service by displaying context-sensitive ads that vary, depending on the actual content of the mail.

For example, when I got an email message from Southwest Airlines, that message came along with ads for other travel services. The ads weren't from Southwest, they were added by Google because the computer read the message, realized it was about travel and therefore assumed that I might be interested in viewing travel related advertisements.

I tested service to see what other ads it might conjure up by sending myself email from another account with all sorts of words relating to sex, health, visits to various cities and just about anything else I could come up with. So far, I haven't seen ads appear on any of these test messages or any messages from friends or associates.

Personally I didn't find anything offensive about seeing ads in conjunction with a piece of commercial mail from an airline or other business, but I might be bothered if I had to wade through ads based on the content of my personal mail. Even though Google says the mail will be read by a machine - not people - there is something creepy about the idea that the mail is being read at all.

What concerns me more than the advertisements is the fact that the mail will be stored forever. Google swears that it will protect users' privacy. I know the two Google founders and its CEO pretty well and I believe that they mean it, but forever is a long time. We don't know who will be running Google several years from now.

Besides, regardless of the privacy policy, it will always be possible for private mail to be unearthed by a judge or perhaps a Congressional committee with subpoena power here in the US or possibly by a court or government in another country. Even if you're confident that's not a problem today, we don't know what the laws will be or who will be in power a couple of decades from now.

And one worries about the possibility of hackers breaking into Google's systems to steal personal information. Of course these issues apply to all computer systems that store or backup data, but Google's commitment to store your information long into the future combined with its superb search tools heighten the concern.

Yet, despite these privacy issues, I think people will like Gmail. While some people will decide not to use this service, many will flock to it because of its ease of use, generous storage allotment and excellent search tools.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid

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