Gmail: Google's e-mail winner

If you've had your fill of Web-based e-mail burdened with skimpy storage and cluttered interfaces, say hello to Google's free Gmail. Packed with innovative features such as message threading and fast searching, Gmail provides a full 1 gigabyte of server space and does away with both banner and pop-up ads, relying instead on sponsored links similar to those on Google's search engine page.

Gmail does have a controversial aspect: the way it handles advertising. Gmail automatically scans e-mail and displays ads that may be relevant to messages' content. Gmail's privacy policy states that no humans view your e-mail; that only a limited set of employees can access user accounts for quality, security, audit, and other internal business purposes; and that any such access is recorded.

Instead of being embedded in e-mail messages, ads are placed on the Web page in a column alongside messages, much the way they appear in Google search results.

Overall I found the text ads unobtrusive -- though often somewhat inappropriate. For instance, a message on the subject of privacy displayed a link for the privacy policy of Illinois's state drug program.

Privacy risks

Ray Everett-Church, chief privacy officer of TurnTide, a antispam company, says he isn't bothered by Gmail's computerized scanning of e-mail because users are given clear notice and because Google doesn't retain or share data that links ad-targeting information to individuals. Adds Gmail tester Sarah Milstein, a New York editor and author: "It's no different than ISPs and employers scanning for spam ... There's no evidence that Google does anything more invasive than other e-mail providers."

Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, disagrees. "Google's plan to scan e-mails for ad placement sets a new precedent of allowing a third party to comment on our private communications," she says.

But ad-related issues notwithstanding, Gmail's message threading -- "conversations" in Googlespeak -- lets you view portions of message exchanges or entire threads. To store messages, you get six folders: In, Starred (containing messages you've highlighted with a star to make them easy to find), Sent Mail, All Mail, Spam, and Trash. Though you can't add new ones, you can apply one or more "Labels" to organize conversations.

Searching is fast and extensive, with standard options such as the ability to search by header field, time, label, or attachment. I used Gmail with Internet Explorer; other beta testers say that it works with a beta of Mozilla's Firefox but not with Opera.

If you would like a free and uncluttered Web mail service with tons of storage, check out Gmail the moment it launches. The privacy issue doesn't bother me: Unlike sleazeball spyware that grabs data without my knowledge, Gmail asked for my permission.

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