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Google Mail – it’s easy and useful and the ads are unobtrusive

By May 17, 2004web-tech

I’ve been testing Google’s soon-to-be-released free E-mail service (called ‘Gmail‘) for a couple of weeks now and I like it. The main features are it is free (that’s worth repeating) and it gives you 1 GB of storage so you are able to pretty much archive all of your E-mail and then just use the fast Google search capability to find any old E-mail you are looking for. Oh, and it serves up unobtrusive ads that are targeted based on the content of the E-mail you search for. Even though I have two E-mail accounts already, I find Gmail useful as a place that I can forward emails to that I want to keep. I like it so much I’d seriously consider using it as my sole E-mail account if I had to.

Apparently, I’m not alone in having a positive outlook of Gmail. For example, writer David Pogue has a favorable write-up in the New York Times. Tech guru Walter Mossberg, who writes for the Wall St. Journal, had a favorable review as well.

Well, actually Mossberg’s review was mostly favorable. He said that Google should offer a for-pay version of the mail service for people who don’t want to deal with the ads. He finds the the notion that Google is searching his emails to target ads ‘kind of creepy.’ A lot of people seem to find it creepy, even though the searching is done purely by stupid computers that simply act on key words according to an algorithm. A legislator in California went so far as to propose legislation to prohibit the sort of searching that Gmail is doing.

I don’t find the targeted ads creepy (see example), or at least not any more creepy than I felt about Caller ID when I first encountered it. Anyone who owns a TIVO can attest to feeling a little strange that the machine is able to guess pretty well what sorts of shows the person likes to watch and then automatically record those shows. Of course, you can disable the function in TIVO if you want. So maybe Mossberg’s point is a good one. Perhaps Google should offer a free version of its Gmail service to those who are ‘creeped out’ by targeted ads. But, then again why should Google do that?

Google is in business to make money, and it makes a good bit by serving targeted ads. Google’s search results have featured targeted ads, and now it’s offering a useful E-mail service (for free) that does the same thing. Other companies offer free E-mail services. And guess what? Somehow and some kind of way the users of those services are targeted with ads. Probably, in most cases, the recipient is getting mass targeted, or their name is sold to people who maintain E-mail lists. If you don’t want to use Gmail when it becomes available, then don’t. Feel free to get use a service that sends you ads based on what zip code you live in, or some other crude demographic prototype.

For now we are living in a world of advertisements, and if I’m going to have to deal with them then I’d rather that they be unobtrusive and –here’s the revolutionary part– closely targeted to my actual interests. Most advertising is obtrusive and roughly tailored (or not tailored at all) to the users interests. Google’s advertising in Gmail is the opposite. And the benefits of a free E-mail account with 1 GB of storage, searchable by the Google technology, are tremendous.

Maybe Google will get around to offering a for-pay E-mail service that does everything that the free one does. But my guess is that they will only do it if there is enough demand for that sort of thing that they can make money at it. By the way, is it still okay to try to make money by offering a useful product or service that people want?


P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.
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