Google on Friday plans to increase the in-box storage of its Gmail Web mail service from 1G byte to 2G bytes, and it will continue to raise that ceiling in coming weeks and months, on a rolling basis, to unspecified heights, according to a Google executive.
"Since we introduced Gmail, people have had a lot of place to store e-mail, but some of our heavier users have been approaching their limits and have been wondering what's going to happen," said Georges Harik, Gmail's product management director. "So, starting [last] Friday, we're going to give people more and more space continuously and indefinitely on Gmail, as we're able to technologically."
There are no current plans to increase Gmail's 10M-byte limit on attachment sizes, he said. There are also no plans to add capabilities to Gmail that would allow subscribers to turn the in-box storage into a full-featured virtual external hard disk, he said. However, Google is aware that some Gmail subscribers are using the service for this purpose, mailing files to themselves to have them stored in their Gmail inbox, he said.
Providing large amounts of e-mail storage is becoming increasingly important as users subscribe to and acquire content such as digital music and video, said Allen Weiner, a Gartner analyst. "The whole nature of what these e-mail services are evolving into is pretty dramatic. Mailboxes will evolve from being a one-dimensional in-box to the center of your premium content delivery," he said.
Once the content is delivered to the in-box, users will move it to devices such as their TVs and digital-music players, and will share it with friends via instant messaging services, social networking sites and blogs, Weiner said. This is why Google rivals Microsoft and Yahoo are each building a integrated communications ecosystems to go with their expanding e-mail storage, he said.
For example, Yahoo and Microsoft are each tying in multiple of their online services within new blogging/social networking sites: Yahoo's Y360 and Microsoft's MSN Spaces. However, Google doesn't seem to be doing that, and thus runs the risk of having a Web mail service with massive amounts of storage that lacks links to complementary services, such as instant messaging and social networking, Weiner said.
"Gmail seems to be a mail platform that doesn't belong in an overall ecosystem," Weiner said. "The really big missing ingredient is the platform for users to share and discover (this content.) That's where Google is falling behind."
Google should move toward integrating in an organic platform services such as Gmail, its Blogger Web logging service, its Orkut social networking site and its Picasa photo sharing and management software, and it should consider developing an instant messaging service, Weiner said.
"If you're in this space and you're not taking a platform approach and you're not creating an extensible foundation, you'll fall behind," Weiner said.
The percentage of Gmail users approaching their in-box storage limit isn't large, but "they are a number that we care about," Harik said. "We want our users to understand that we have a plan and that we're anticipating their needs, and that there isn't something strange that's going to happen with Gmail down the line."
When it announced Gmail a year ago, Google rocked the Web mail market, whose main players generally offered minimal inbox storage for their free services. For example, at the time, Yahoo offered its free Web mail users 4M bytes and Microsoft offered MSN Hotmail users 2M bytes of in-box storage.
Since then, most major Web mail providers have reacted to Gmail's in-box offer and have increased their storage significantly. Microsoft and Yahoo now both offer 250M bytes for their free services, and Yahoo plans to begin offering 1G byte starting in late April. Both Yahoo and Microsoft offer 2G-byte in-boxes with their fee-based Web mail services.
A caveat with Gmail is that it is still technically in a test, or beta, phase, and isn't generally available. To obtain a Gmail account, one has to receive an invitation from an existing user; each current user has 50 invitations to give. Google also randomly offers Gmail accounts via its main Google.com Web page.
Asked whether access to Gmail accounts would ever be totally open, Harik declined to answer. "We keep looking for ways to make it more broadly available to people who want to use it," he said.
While Gmail is free to use, it does feature text ads that are served up to users with each message they open; ads are based on each message's text. This feature caused an outcry from critics concerned about privacy, but Google responded by saying the text scanning is automated and without human intervention.