June 3, 2004
Google Inc.'s free e-mail service has been derided as an obnoxious privacy invasion that will suck up vast amounts of user data and deposit information into a massive database that never disappears. And that's before it's even officially available.
The Internet search leader says its computers will merely be scanning e-mail so it can place relevant and nonintrusive text ads next to messages. That's how Google plans to make a buck - and be able to offer the service without charging the user.
While privacy advocates pontificated, lawmakers legislated and Google posted notices about how important privacy is, I got a chance to try out Web-based Gmail. I was generally pleased, though it's not yet a finished product.
As for privacy, there are a lot bigger fish to fry as messages travel from computer to computer across the Internet and into the recipient's Google account.
The privacy debate tends to obscure assessment of other Gmail attributes - namely usability, storage and search. In most of these areas, Google trounces other free e-mail services, including those offered by Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo! Inc.
Gmail's most impressive feature is its 1 gigabyte of storage per user. It makes Microsoft Hotmail's 2 megabytes (1/500th) seem stingy, as well as Yahoo Mail's old limit of 4 megabytes, which will soon be boosted to 100 megabytes.
Instead of trashing messages that might be useful in the future, the e-mails and attachments in Gmail can be archived.
Google, of course, incorporates its powerful search function, making both active and archived messages quickly accessible. The entire inbox can be searched from a text box that appears on every page. Beyond that, Gmail organizes messages by conversation, rather than by simple chronological order. When a new message at the end of the conversation is opened, the older ones appear as horizontal tabs but can be revealed with a couple of clicks.
There are other flourishes: Gmail can be configured to mark messages addressed to me as opposed to a mailing list. Messages also can be marked with a star and everything in that category called up with a click.
Actions such as automatically archiving a message can be programmed. Similarly, user-defined labels can be attached to any message or conversation, making it easier to sort them.
Though Gmail is mostly polished, some areas need improvement. For one, it doesn't work with third-party e-mail programs such as Outlook or Eudora. Its Web-based interface also chokes Safari, Apple Computer Inc.'s Web browser.
The help system also lacked any explanation as to whether messages and attachments are scanned for viruses. It also didn't do any better than my Hotmail or Yahoo accounts in identifying messages as spam.
As for the much-maligned advertisements, I found them to be unobtrusive and well-targeted, just like the text ads that appear alongside Google searches. Google also occasionally provides a list of "related" links to sites and news stories beneath the ads.
But Gmail doesn't always deliver ads. This was usually the case with personal e-mail messages that weren't about vacations.
In its many postings on privacy, Google also says it would "block certain ads from running next to an e-mail about catastrophic news."
I tested it by sending an e-mail to my Gmail account with "catastrophic" news about the death of a fictional uncle, who "died" tragically while vacationing in Hawaii.
Sure enough, no ads for funeral homes appeared. Nor did any useful links to mortuaries in Hawaii.
But when I appended the tragic news to a conversation about Cisco routers and sent it to my Gmail account, technical ads suddenly appeared.
There seem to be ways to get around the ads. The Cisco thread, for instance, did not trigger any when it was in a Microsoft Word document sent as an attachment.
As someone who read Google's policies, which were written in plain English, and willingly signed up, I had no problem with the message scanning - and the company promises not to sell your data to third parties.
But what about the people who e-mail me? Don't they have any say?
As it turns out, there may be bigger worries.
If the message originated at an office computer, there's a chance a suspicious boss (or his software) reviewed it. If written at home, there's a possibility that a paranoid spouse installed a program that captures every keystroke.
If it was sent over an unprotected Wi-Fi network, the message could have been intercepted by a nosy neighbor. If it was checked for spam, it likely was scanned for words like "Viagra" and other tip-offs that a message will be unwanted.
And on the Internet, most people don't bother with encryption even when it's available, so the bored technicians at Internet service providers and elsewhere can easily have a look.
That's not to say Google might not someday be involved in some sort of scandal involving Gmail. But at least the company is clearly stating what will and won't be done with data.