Google is launching a new web-based email service called Gmail that it hopes it will allow people to search their email as easily as they search the web -- as well as provide Google with a more permanent connection to its users.
"Your mail comes in. You don't have to file it. You can just do a query based on what you remember about it," said Wayne Rosing, vice president of engineering at Google.
Rosing said the system has been in development for a number of years and used internally by employees. Now it's being turned into a product for the public, though most of the public will still need to wait a few weeks to try it.
Google employees are currently inviting people outside the company to join the system. Once Google becomes more confident of Gmail's stability under a heavier load, the general public will be allowed to sign-up.
"It really is a test. We need to get feedback from non-technical users. And that's one of the suggestions to Googlers, to invite their mothers, fathers and non-technical relatives. We think it will take a few weeks to get things sorted out, and I imagine we'll open it up after that."
Free Mail, But With Contextual Ads
Google has no immediate plans to charge for the system. Rather, it hopes to monetize through the placement of its AdSense contextual ads near the system's mail viewing window. For example, someone reading an email about a particular movie might also see nearby ads pitching the movie's DVD or soundtrack.
Presumably, Google's keyword-linked AdWords ads would also show up when actual mail searches were conducted.
Mixing ads with email isn't new. Free services have long earned by inserting ads into the footers of emails that their users send. But some users might be disturbed by the concept that Google, even if only in an automated fashion, would be essentially reading their mail in order to know what ads to place.
Indeed, the New York Times reports that some inside Google have exactly this worry. And while the messages might stay private, the contextual ads that Google serves simply can't be targeted without the email's content being analyzed.
Somewhat similar concerns came up back in 2002, when Yahoo considered using personal search histories as a way to deliver targeted email advertisements for its Yahoo Impluse Mail program. The company later abandoned these plans.
Rosing also said that it's possible paid services such as additional storage could come in the future. It would depend on user demand, he said.
You've Got A Gigabyte Of Mail!
Extra storage probably won't be an immediate priority for most users, as Google is giving each person 1 gigabyte of storage. To put that into perspective, Yahoo's popular Yahoo Mail service provides only 4 megabytes of storage for free -- 250 times less space. Users can upgrade to more space -- but this caps out at 100 megabytes and costs $60 per year.
Providing so much storage is essential for Google to provide a distinction that web-based mail systems seem to lack -- easy searching. Google's mail philosophy is that there's no need to spend much time creating mail folders or extensive filters. Instead, it promises that its search technology will put email information at the fingertips of its users.
"You don't need to delete. You just build up a lot of mail, and it's organized automatically into threads," Rosing said, describing how various email "conversations" get uncovered through keyword searching.
It's a concept I can well understand. My life revolves around the email I have stored in Microsoft Outlook -- about 100 megabytes worth. Until early last year, I managed by creating folders, filters and doing a lot of filing. But after discovering a great search tool for Outlook -- NEO -- I do little filing. Instead, I've become much more dependent on a fast keyword searching to find what I'm looking for.
Google's not unique in offering web-based mail search functionality. Yahoo Mail has a similar feature, for example. But the ability to store so much of your mail at Google may give its service a huge advantage if search-based mail reading takes off.
Here's a case in point. While on vacation for a week last year, I experimented with routing copies of all my mail to my Yahoo Mail account in addition keeping it elsewhere for downloading to Outlook. Despite having paid for 25MB worth of storage, I ran out of space in about a week. Of course, I get a lot of email. But the ability to store so much email data and potentially sift through it efficiently sounds promising.
Other Mail Options
Spam filtering is part of the Gmail system already, and user feedback mechanisms allow for it to grow, according to Google.
"We have a very significant spam detection system built in, and we are continuing to improve it," Rosing said. "As people mark spam, they'll be able to help each other."
Rosing said Google has developed the spam system internally, rather than through any technology purchase or licensing. Similarly, he said the Trakken email support technology it acquired in 2003 is not involved in Gmail.
Gmail won't allow for downloading into a desktop-based program at launch. However, Rosing said Google fully expects to add these features soon and not to charge for them, as can be the case with some other services.
Getting To Know You
Going forward, Google hopes that the email system will help it do a better job in other areas, such as delivering more personalized search results. How exactly how this might work remains to be seen.
"We think this is a great convenience to our users, and ultimately this can lead to other technologies we can use like personalization," Rosing said. We don't have any plans in that department yet. But we think having a more stateful relationship with our user base make sense."
Getting To Keep You: Google The Portal?
However email might help with personalization in the future, there's no doubt it will help solve an immediate weakness Google has -- no user lock-in. Users potentially could abandon Google for another search engine at any moment. However, with hundreds of megabytes of email in storage at Google, users might be more inclined to stick around.
I commented on this and how email might help Google back in February, when rumors of a possible jump into email started circulating.
Email, of course, was one of the first "sticky" features that the search engines of old added when they transformed themselves into portals. Excite jumpstarted the move, and Yahoo and Lycos quickly followed. Even AltaVista eventually offered free email in 1998, only to give it up in 2002 when its attempt to be a portal failed.
Isn't becoming a portal something Google vowed never to do? Not exactly. As I reminded recently, Google has never ruled out email or any other feature it thought it could do well.
"I won't say we won't add services, but we wouldn't put free email on our site unless we thought we could do a much better job," Google cofounder Larry Page told me back in 1999, talking then about Google's potential future directions.
That interview is especially telling, as it highlights another reason Google wanted to avoid adding portal-like features. To keep its portal partners from viewing it as a threat.
Today, with two of the three major portals gunning for it, rolling out email is a way for Google to fire back at MSN and Yahoo. Whether that might also upset Google-partner and major portal AOL remains to be seen.
Ultimately, as I expected would be the case, Google says making email searchable fits right into Google's oft-stated misson of making data accessible.
"What we are trying to do is organize and present the world's information," Rosing said.