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Hot on the Web

Gmail: Still a work in progress

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 27, 2004
(Issue 2235, A Friend in Need)

Google's new Gmail service has been the hottest topic of conversation regarding the Web for some months now. From the industry-leading 1 gigabyte of storage space to all the hand-wringing over its content-based advertising, Gmail has had the online world abuzz.

This, despite the fact that Gmail is still in beta development – and that the number of people who actually have Gmail is still measured in the tens, or maybe hundreds, of thousands (Google is being rather tight-lipped about it).

Well, thanks to Georganna Hancock from the San Diego Computer Society, Hot on the Web now has a Gmail account.

A slightly different model

Other than the 1 gig of e-mail storage, the Gmail model isn't too different from other Web-based e-mail services, such as Yahoo, Hotmail and Netscape.

The basic interface will be familiar to anyone who has used any of the above services. After logging in, your basic menu is your in-box – just as with the above services, Outlook, Eudora or any of the other popular e-mail clients.

While earlier versions of Gmail didn't have a delete function (or at least I never found it), the current build (in early August) has replaced the doofy 'Archive" function with a normal process that allows you to delete messages you no longer want. It's a two-part process (sending them to the Trash Can; emptying the trash can), but that's probably good because it prevents you from deleting a message by accident. Anyway, it's far better than the 'Archive" thing they were playing with early on.

One useful function that isn't very common elsewhere is a 'Star" attribute you can assign to any message; it's simply a way of marking messages you consider important or want to be able to find easily later on.

Perhaps the most useful feature of Gmail is the way it displays your messages as a thread – similar to Usenet newsgroups and many bulletin board software programs. Rather than simply stringing them all together in multiple (and annoying) quotes, Gmail uses a series of tabs to let you follow the thread of an ongoing back-and-forth exchange.

And of course, there are the advertisements – the financial engine that drives the free Gmail service. The self-proclaimed 'privacy" crowd claims our rights are violated when Google's servers scan our e-mail messages for key words so they can place ads in our e-mail.

Frankly, I haven't found the embedded ads to be any more of a pain than the ads we're used to seeing elsewhere online. The Gmail ads have the same basic, text-based appearance as Google's existing AdSense ads – usually a column or row of three to five small square ads.

I find the ads a small – and fair – price to pay for the Gmail service.

Some rough edges

One unsettling develoment is that Gmail has been spotty working with non-Microsoft browsers. My copy of Mozilla's Firefox browser ( worked fine with Gmail for a month or so, but then gave me a blank screen after I log in. Looking at the source code showed an undisplayed message telling me I had Javascript disabled – when, in fact, it was turned on. Gmail and Firefox seem to be getting on right now, though. Older versions of Apple's Safari browser won't work with Gmail (nor will IE for the Mac). Also, the new Camino browser for Apple OSX from Mozilla ( works with Gmail (Camino v. 0.8 and up).

Changing the marketplace

The threat of Gmail has already convinced Yahoo to increase its free storage from 10 Mb to 100Mb. Hotmail's free service still only offers 2 Mb, but for $20 a year, you can get 2Gb. Interestingly, one of the first outfits to offer free Web-based e-mail accounts, Netscape, doesn't seem to be changing their storage policy of 5Mb (Note: As of mid-November, this was increased to 250Mb.) With Netscape now owned by AOL, you wonder how long they'll even continue to offer the Netscape mail service.

Another development

Finally, in the past I wouldn't use Hotmail because of the necessity of setting up a Microsoft Passport account in order to do so – and the fact that once created, a Passport account could never be closed. Microsoft has changed its policy, now, and if you so choose, you can close and delete your Passport account. I found the previous policy to be far more worrisome than having a few ads in my e-mails.