Ah, a topic we can sink our teeth into! Of course, the downside is that this carcass had been picked over quite a bit by the daily writers by the time I got to it, but the upside is that I get the advantage of reviewing all their comments before I weigh in, making me seem much smarter than I am.
The consensus of just about everyone I've read or corresponded with is that this is a bad idea. Bad for users whose privacy will be invaded. Bad for Google, who loses their underground, hip status as they step up to play with the big boys.
We'll cover these points in a second, but first, here's how I feel about it: Google's GMail is going to be huge--and potentially the biggest threat to Microsoft dominance since the early days of Netscape. In fact, the parallels between today's Google and early Netscape are palpable. Both have/had highly anticipated IPOs. Both dealt with a technology that Microsoft paid little attention to. Both gained huge mindshare in their sector before Microsoft woke up. Both threatened Microsoft's future in a big way.
So how does Gmail threaten Microsoft's future? Let's face it, the thing that really keeps us locked into Windows is Microsoft Office, and a big part of Office is Outlook. With the legion of adolescent virus writers out there, Outlook is really just a big time bomb waiting to go off, ready to wipe out your entire life with a single click on an errant attachment.
What Gmail offers is a safe haven with nearly unlimited storage and a search mechanism that is unsurpassed (at least compared to Outlook if we believe the early hype) with potential viruses being handled on the server side. I, for instance, never delete any email, and trying to search for a specific email within Outlook can take forever. Outlook will eventually find it, but I can finish my "Eight Minute Ab" workout tape before it does. (Okay, those who know me know I don't own an Eight Minute Ab tape--I'm trying to make a point here, dammit!)
Email is no longer just email: it is the Arc of the Convenient containing a catalog of your entire life and career. "Deep Thought" around the email search interface has not been a high priority within Outlook. Providing a better (and free) email mousetrap has the potential to loose the death grip that Microsoft has around many of our throats. And if I were Microsoft, I would have Google in my sights right about now as the number one threat to my existence.
So let's get into the downside: privacy. Google is planning to provide this free service by inserting contextual text ads within the body of the email. Consider this imaginary exchange: "Dear John: Well, the boss is being a real pain in the butt today. [Download a free coupon for Preparation H ] I'd really love to knock his teeth out. [Denture problems? Get the Dentu-Cream advantage] My wife's been nagging me about my drunk driving conviction again [Drink of the week from Bercardi] and sometimes I feel like getting my gun out and popping her one. [Join the NRA Today] Sincerely, Jack
Well, that--or something like it--might be coming to an inbox in your future soon. Some people are aghast at the idea, but quite frankly, the American Public just doesn't seem to care when it comes to privacy concerns on the Internet. At least these exchanges are being scanned by a computer, not a human, and no one has access to them.
A search on Google's newsgroup under my name will reveal posts I made almost a decade ago to anyone who wants to dig into my past and hobbies. (By the way, if you do, you will find that I have a strong interest in Guitars, Magic, and Buddhism). I'm much more concerned about some of the idiotic things I might have said on a public forum in the heat of exchange than anyone riffling though my email like a National Enquirer reporter at a Michael Jackson dumpster.
As far as the ads are concerned, pundits completely underestimate what people will accept and find useful. It wasn't that long ago when those in the know said paid search would never work, that people wouldn't trust the results. As it turns out, the paid search links are the first thing many people turn to. And ever since the Web became integrated with our computing experience, it is not difficult for people to accept a word processor that looks like a Web browser or an email message that looks like a search page.
Those of us who correspond through a variety of newsgroups, lists, and private email are used to having others stare over our shoulder. We might appreciate a useful link now and again when reading yet another daily "Joke List" from our brother-in-law. Hey, what do you call a Viola Player with a Pager? [Get your Verizon Pager NOW!!!] (Answer: an optimist.)