June 23, 2004

Got Gmail?

A week ago, while discussing Yahoo! Mail's recent improvements, I said, "And don't get me started on the privacy controversy with Gmail (Google's new free e-mail service). Who wants any service to scan your e-mail for profiling and/or targeting?" Well, over the weekend (just before packing up the PC equipment for our full house move from Wisconsin to Illinois -- which is why you haven't seen a new post in a week), I received a spare Gmail invitation from a fellow ABA LawTech listserv mate -- yet another reason why it pays to participate. So I thought, what the heck, let's take Gmail for a spin.

My thoughts so far:

The first thing that struck me was how familiar the web e-mail interface was -- strikingly similar to Yahoo!'s web mail look and feel. The page loading was snappy. However, you must enable scripting and ActiveX in your web browser for the pages to load properly (or Gmail will generate error pages telling you to turn them on). I have my browser set to prompt me for these types of active content as a security precaution, so it pops up a lot of prompts.

After reading through Google's informational screens, I now understand why they not only give you a full Gigabyte of storage, but actively encourage you to dump as much e-mail there as you desire, without ever deleting it: The more content you store in Gmail, the more raw information is presented to Google's e-mail search technology, which in turn enables Google to better profile your interests for their targeted ad system.

In other words, the more you store, the more it indexes, and like the wolf said to Little Red Riding Hood, "the better to see you with". Perhaps this is a harsh characterization, but Google's spin that no human is reading your e-mail doesn't hold much weight with me, and quite the contrary since an automated search should be even more efficient at raw data gathering and flagging. On one hand, better sampling arguably translates to more relevant ads that you may actually find of interest. On the other, regarding privacy, let's just say I won't be storing any sensitive or truly confidential information in Gmail. As there has been an intense amount of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) and controversy over Gmail's privacy issues, Google's statement on Gmail's privacy attempts to put us all at ease. It's up to each person's comfort level after that. After all, no one is forcing us to use Gmail.

Gmail's Getting Started Guide lists a number of "new" features, including conversation threading, no need to delete, and archiving all received and sent messages to a single "All Mail" repository -- which is an interesting concept to dump everything into one place and use Gmail's search, filtering, and other tools to find it later. Each e-mail can be organized with one or more labels, rather than dumped into separate folders (which Google calls "the old way"). This allows messages to be sorted or filtered in different ways. And of course you can search them using the built-in Google search engine.

It also features a spam filter which Google is continuing to improve. Thus far, my account appears too new to attract spam yet, but we'll see how it goes. Also, the Gmail Beta cannot insert recipient e-mail addresses from the included address book, and they are working on this. I was little surprised that a basic feature like this wasn't functional yet, but that's why they call it a Beta.

Overall, though, Gmail will likely meet many people's needs, especially the 1 GB storage and 10 MB per message limit. One danger, as I see it, is that firm and corporate users who have internally-imposed storage and message limitations for their enterprise e-mail systems may tend to use free and more expansive services such as Gmail for expedient workarounds in a pinch. Even if you have solid policies in place, the open web browser egress is something to consider.

[Update 6.25.04: Tom Collins of Knowledge Aforethought posted how Gmail's features - "a full Gigabyte of storage, full search functionality, and automated grouping and labeling - makes it intriguing as a partial answer to the personal KM questions raised by Dennis Kennedy and discussed in a recent post here."]

Topic(s):   Web Wizardry
Posted by Jeff Beard