Charles Arthur On Technology

Is Gmail another Google triumph?

You'll have heard by now about Google's Gmail, which aims to do for e-mail what Google did for searching the web: dominate it. With a gigabyte of storage for free allied to its search facility, the expectation is that people will be flocking to sign up. But unless you're one of those lucky beta-testers, how are you to know what it's like?

You'll have heard by now about Google's Gmail, which aims to do for e-mail what Google did for searching the web: dominate it. With a gigabyte of storage for free allied to its search facility, the expectation is that people will be flocking to sign up. But unless you're one of those lucky beta-testers, how are you to know what it's like?

I've spent the past two weeks trying it out. The good news: 1,000 messages barely scratches the surface. Checking my inbox now, I've got 1,215 messages, with a lot of attachments. "You are using 23Mb (2 per cent) of your storage," the site notes.

One immediate problem is that Google's spam-filtering isn't much good. Of the 50 messages on my first page, 20 were spam or virus-generated "bounces" from mail delivery software accusing me of sending out viruses. Now, it may be that Gmail's spamtrap was confused, because I wasn't having messages sent directly to my gmail.com account; instead they were sent to another of my e-mail addresses, which "aliased" them onwards to Gmail.

That would mean none of the mail arriving for me at Gmail would actually have "gmail.com" in the "To", "Cc" or even "Bcc" field. On that basis, the spamtrap might have decided that all my messages were equally good - or bad - and had the choice of either stopping them all, or stopping none.

It chose the latter, which is at least the non-harmful option. Even so, it would be nice to see a spamtrap that could figure out from the header or content that a message promoting drugs, or containing purposely daft characters, is just junk.

Failure to stop spam is a cardinal sin for an online service. For me, Gmail failed right there: I'll never use webmail where I have to weed out more than three spams a day. You can write filters that Gmail will apply to incoming mail, but quite why one should be writing filters to beat spam, when the world's largest search engine could do it, I don't know.

Meanwhile, campaigners have been waving their hands over what they perceive as Gmail's invasion of privacy, because it scans your email for words against which to sell adverts, which appear on the right of your e-mail when you read it. For example, when I brought up one entitled "Alpinist Magazine wins Maggie Award" I also got ads - small text ones, like those you get on Google's main site when you do a search - for Forbes and other magazines. It seems there's some sort of "sensitivity" meter built in; sending messages about deaths doesn't produce ads for flowers or funeral directors.

Does that amount to an invasion of privacy? I can't see how. This isn't a person, it's a machine running a set of algorithms. Nobody at Google knows or cares what's in your e-mail. There could be an issue, however, if for some reason the police, either here or in the US, wanted to investigate your e-mail. You probably wouldn't know it was happening, but Google would be obliged to give them access without telling you. (It's right there in the terms of use: "Google also reserves the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as it reasonably believes is necessary to ... satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request.")

And as for the claims filed by privacy groups who think that it might break European privacy or data protection laws, since Google's UK arm could provide ads to you, as a UK user, the terms also have that wrapped up: "Any claims, legal proceeding or litigation arising in connection with the Service will be brought solely in Santa Clara County, California, and you consent to the jurisdiction of such courts." It's not cast-iron, but you're on the back foot.

Tedious legalities aside, how well does the service work? Google has thoughtfully provided keyboard shortcuts to let you move around your messages: "o" opens a message, "n" moves to the next message, "c" composes a new one. These are like any new set of instructions - hard to learn if you're used to others, fine once they're ingrained. Gmail also "threads" e-mails on the same topic, even if they're from different senders, by tracking the "Re:" that goes in front of a message. This is effective, and saves a lot of rooting around your inbox for related messages.

As for those who prefer to have their webmail copied on their own PC, Gmail says it will be offering both POP and IMAP forwarding (which lets you create local copies of messages). That, too, is like the others, and will be necessary to compete effectively.

Finally, what is the Google searching of your e-mail like? Surprisingly, I hardly used this; not because it isn't effective (it is, stunningly), but because e-mail is like a shark, always moving forward. How often do you really dig around for some key e-mail older than a few days? Even though my archive of work e-mail - which goes back to 1995 and occupies 572Mb for the text of the messages alone - is an essential work resource, I only rarely search it for names, words or phrases. Perhaps being able to Google your Gmail will change the way you use e-mail - but I doubt it, to be honest. It's still about creating new communication with people.

For all that, Gmail will be a hit because presently Google is the centre of gravity of the internet. Everyone wants to be associated with it: witness the online begging letters asking for Gmail accounts. The other webmail services will have to smarten up their acts, and expand the free space they make available. But when that's done, it'll come back to how well each tackles the enemy of our time - spam.

May the best filter win.

network@independent.co.uk

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