Gmail hits the auction block

Ever since Google launched limited beta testing of Gmail, its free Web-based e-mail service, getting an account has been something like gaining entry to an exclusive nightclub.

Beta testers each receive two invitations to the service to pass on to whomever they deem cool enough. Friends and family are coming out of the woodwork clamoring for the goods.

But some beta testers are turning the opportunity into profit. By posting their invitations at auction on EBay, they're finding out how much 1GB of "free" e-mail storage is worth.

The EBay Experience

Gary Ng of Victoria, British Columbia, sold one Gmail invitation for US$150.

"I've found you can sell almost anything (on EBay) if you give it a try," Ng says. "But the fact that I was able to sell something as little as an e-mail account invite was really fun and entertaining!"

Kevin Chang, a sophomore at Carnegie-Mellon University majoring in electrical and computer engineering, sold one of his invitations at auction for US$91.

"I asked a few friends if they wanted accounts and no one was interested, so I figured I'd try putting it on EBay and see if I could make a few bucks," he says. Chang was invited to become a beta tester for Gmail because he has an account with Google's Web logging service, Blogger. After the success of the auction, his first-ever EBay transaction, he is considering auctioning the other invitation as well.

More than 280 Gmail account auctions are pending on EBay, some with dozens of bidders and current prices as high as $150. Sellers list locations all over United States, as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

A Google spokesperson declines to comment on the auctions, except to say, "It's flattering that there's so much enthusiasm about our product."

Worth the Price?

Hal Danziger, a Web development programmer from New York, paid US$76 for his Gmail account. It's the first thing he's ever bought on EBay.

"I did a search on Google News to find out when Gmail would launch publicly, and I saw a mention of the EBay auctions. I wanted to get a good username before the service launched, so I placed a bid," he says. Unfortunately for Danziger, his first choice was unavailable: Gmail usernames must be at least six characters long.

Ng, Chang, and Danziger were all surprised to see such high and frequent bidding on the EBay auctions. But Danziger says he's happy with what he paid for his account.

Privacy advocates are concerned that even after the free service launches, users will pay a high price: Gmail scans e-mail for keywords and displays related advertisements alongside messages. In addition, Gmail's privacy policy says that "deleted" messages may continue to be stored in the system, even after a user closes the account.

But Danziger is undeterred: "Nothing's for nothing. I think it's kind of ridiculous that people are concerned. If you want the gigabyte of storage for free, it's not giving up much to see ads that are based on your e-mail."

Hotmail Killer?

Ng, Chang, and Danziger all say that they now use Gmail exclusively for personal e-mail.

"Gmail has been stellar so far," Ng raves. "The interface is amazing and is much easier to use than other online e-mail accounts. All I have to say is 'Watch out, Hotmail!'"

In fact, Microsoft's Hotmail is a likely target in the growing rivalry between the two tech companies. Gmail has drawn favorable reviews during its testing, despite some initial concern about the ad placements. And already it is having an impact: Yahoo has said that it will increase its storage offerings in response to Google's generous allotment.

"The best part is that with that much storage I don't have to delete things all the time," says Chang. He adds that as the science and technology editor at The Tartan, his university's newspaper, he saves a lot of e-mail messages for later reference.

Danziger says that he hasn't seen any spam in his inbox since making the switch. His one complaint about the service: Gmail does not currently provide an automated way to import his address book from his other e-mail accounts.

Thousands of users are participating in the ever-growing beta test program, says a Google spokesperson. The company has not released a timeline for Gmail's public launch.

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