Despite the hype, Gmail still hasn't been launched. Or has it? Some of us have been using Google's Web mail service for a while.
This month I've been playing with the Internet must-have of the year - Gmail, Google's free e-mail service. By the time you read this you may be able to sign up for an account by logging on to www.gmail.com. Or maybe not, because Google is being very cagey about when Gmail will officially launch.
So how did I get an account? Well, somebody (very kindly) invited me to join. Although Gmail is officially in beta status, you could argue that the system of offering membership to selected individuals, rather than initiating a stampede with a free-for-all offer, is a clever way of not only making Gmail desirable, but also of protecting the servers from being overwhelmed when it does finally go live.
Only Google employees were offered Gmail accounts in the early days of testing. They were then issued with invitations, so they could get their friends to use the service.
Google next offered active users of its Web-logging service, Blogger, the opportunity to try Gmail. After a while they were also able to offer accounts to their mates. How many invitations a user receives, how frequently and for how long, remains something of a mystery. It may depend on the regularity with which you use the service or how many people you invite successfully. It may even be influenced by the phases of the moon - no one really knows.
But it seems that most users are now being issued with six invitations. When these have been dispensed with, they're usually replaced by another six a couple of days later. This could signal that Google is gearing up for launch, but then again it might not...
So enough of the hype and mystery - what's Gmail like to use? Well, on initial impression, very good. Google has clearly put a lot of thought into this service.
Size doesn't matter
There's the headline-grabbing 1GB of storage per mailbox, although that in itself is only a minor reason for getting a Gmail account. It's in a different league to the 2MB you get as standard with Hotmail, but other free e-mail providers are already expanding inbox capacity to 100MB and beyond. It's good to know that you have plenty of storage to play with, but most users are unlikely to get anywhere near 1GB - unless they're really trying. The real benefit of Gmail is its user interface, which rivals that of some standalone e-mail applications. The most noticeable advancement is the threading of messages, so that all responses to an e-mail are grouped together in a single conversation.
Click here to view a screen shot of threading messages together to keep track of them in Gmail.
When you open your inbox, rather than be presented with hundreds of single e-mails, they're all nicely grouped together in a logical structure. Select a conversation thread and by default, you'll see the most recent e-mail in the conversation. If you want to look back through the thread, simply clicking one of the messages above will expand the e-mail so you can read everything.
Gmail, being a Google product, has also integrated searching into the service. The words you looked for are highlighted in the results, so it's easy to find what you need.
Click here to view a screen shot of how Gmail groups messages in your inbox.
Rather than opting for folders to organise your mail, as other products do, Gmail uses labels. These work in a similar way to folders, but with one distinct ad-vantage: a message can have more than one label. If you had one folder for colleagues' e-mails and another for places to go out for a drink, what would you do with a message from a business associate about going to the pub?
With Gmail, you could apply both labels to the e-mail and the message would show up in either search. A simple but useful concept.
Click here to view a screen shot of Gmail's labels.
So, does Gmail justify the hype?
On the whole, yes. Just as Google took searching and made it better, Gmail does the same for Web-based e-mail. It's not going to radically change your life, but it will make it easier to manage and for that Google should be applauded.
Click here to view a screen shot of Gmails' unobtrusive and built in spell checker.
Gmail Forums: Want your very own Gmail account but no one's invited you? Don't be shy, pop along to Gmail Forums and a kind soul is certain to offer you one. Once you've got your account, there's also a great resource to help you make the most of it. www.gmailforums.com
Gmail Notifier: Here is a small application that sits in the System Tray and keeps an eye on your Gmail inbox, notifying you when new mail is received. Gmail Notifier also allows you to set Google's new baby as your default e-mail account in Windows so, when you hit any "Click here to e-mail me" links, they'll open up in Gmail. http://toolbar.google.com/gmail-helper
Google Zeitgeist: Want to know what the world is searching for? As well as the top 10 gaining and declining queries for the past week - Ian Thorpe down, Jennifer Hawkins up - Google Zeitgeist offers data broken down by category. Apparently, in the UK and Spain, Britney Spears was the most searched for woman in August, while the Germans favoured Paris Hilton - proving that there's no accounting for taste. www.google.com/press/zeitgeist.html