Tools Of The Trade: Google Gmail

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The Independent Online

Microsoft may be training its sights on Google with the launch of its enhanced MSN search engine, but behind the scenes, Google's engineers have been working on something that could eat away at a market dominated by Microsoft: email.

Microsoft may be training its sights on Google with the launch of its enhanced MSN search engine, but behind the scenes, Google's engineers have been working on something that could eat away at a market dominated by Microsoft: email.

Google has been testing its Gmail service for several months now. It will compete most directly with Microsoft's Hotmail, but its features could make it an interesting proposition for business email too.

Chief among these is a 1GB mailbox, more space than on Google's webmail rivals and more capacity than most companies give their own users. The idea of such a vast capacity is liberating as many people use their email as virtual filing cabinets.

In theory, a huge mailbox could bring problems as searching for a particular message should be that much harder. But Google combines expertise from its search engine business with the simplicity of a webmail interface. Log in to a Gmail account and you notice the clear, uncluttered layout. There is a pane for incoming messages, links to "sent", "draft", "spam" and "trash" folders, and a search box. This has two buttons: one for mail, one for the web.

Google claims its search technology can hunt through a full mailbox in a fraction of a second. Putting this to the test, of course, is difficult but the process is far more intuitive than on popular email programs like Outlook.

Most programs can search through headers, recipients or senders, or more slowly, through the message body. Gmail searches right through all of a message, including the contents for keywords, and displays these in their context.

As an alternative, it offers a "conversational view", making it easy to follow a thread of messages and responses. The power of this lies in bringing together what would otherwise be fragmented information Anyone who has had to trawl their mailbox for details of a contract negotiation will appreciate this facility.

Google plans to pay for the Gmail service through on-screen advertising, promising that the ads will be unobtrusive; it seems a reasonable price to pay for a powerful service.

For now, though, it is only available to a limited number of people, mostly by invitation. If you want to try Gmail, be nice to someone with an account.

THE VERDICT

Pros: Very powerful.

Cons: Not yet generally available.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Cost: Free.

Contact: www.google.com

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