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Gmail: Desirable or Not?

Date:  Sat, 12th-Jun-2004prevnext

Tags: Commentary

As Gmail-mania sweeps the Internet I feel I have to ask, "So what?"

I'm afraid I just don't get it. It's a web-mail service, not the Philospher's Stone. I know there's 1GB of storage. I know there's threaded sorting and I know that in-line searching is highly rated (this is a Google service after all). But take away the headline-grabbing features and Gmail is just another Hotmail clone...

“Why would you pay for something that is free?”

At the time of writing, Gmail accounts are obtainable by invitation only. This is nothing more than a masterpiece of marketing. Using exclusivity, Google has created a "select" clique of members and sowed the seeds of yearning in the "have nots" - and that yearning is undeniably strong. Those poor souls who aren't "lucky" enough to have a Gmail account are, it seems, prepared to do just about anything to get one. Thus we find ourselves encountering users who offer goods and services or even cash for something that, in time, will be open to all and free of charge! Why would you pay for something that is free? It seems that Gmail hysteria and lack of common sense go hand-in-hand.

I don't like web-mail services. I use the web interface to my own mail server only when I have to. I much prefer to have my email on my local computer, where it's available to me whether I'm on or offline. Having email stored on my local computer enables me to perform arbitrary tasks that just aren't available in any web-mail system that I'm aware of, Gmail included.

Tricks with Local Email

My email is collected from my web-server by a Perl script. This script immediately strips all requests for remote resources from the email (web-bug removal), saves any attachments into a quarantine folder where they are immediately checked for virii and runs the email through a Bayesian filter to remove any spam not already detained by Spam Arrest. Any auto-responder triggers are then activated as required. Once these operations have been completed, the content of the email is stored in a MySQL database.

With the email in a RDBMS a wealth of options are available. I can sort, filter and otherwise order my email any way I like, threaded ordering included. I can mail-merge, I can create broadcast email, I can categorise, I can search, I can apply any formatting I choose. I can use regular expressions and SQL for data mining (for example, I have a tiny Perl script that extracts email addresses and URLs from my email and collates them). Once all my processing is done, I can then inject the resulting email into Thunderbird for "normal" handling.

Oh yes, and I have 80GB of local storage capacity and 2TB of network-attached storage to play with. Gmail can't compete!


One major side-effect of Google's decision to add exclusivity to the Gmail system is that the early adopters get to cherry-pick their user names (the portion before the "@gmail.com"). This means that the chances of you acquiring an email address that accurately represents you or your organisation will likely be slim when Gmail finally opens to the public, and they will decrease with every passing day thereafter. In Google's defence, this is a problem with every other public web-mail service in existence.

Which brings my to my final gripe with web-mail services: I don't want my recipients to get email from jonathan@gmail.com, I certainly don't want the people I correspond with to receive email from xyz_1234567890@gmail.com! I have several domain names of my own, both personal and corporate. I want my outbound email to reflect that. Anything else looks unprofessional and amateurish in my opinion.


Gmail is a remarkable marketing achievement. Google have created a desirable brand and generated a remarkable amount of press coverage and they've achieved this in a remarkably short time.

However, strip away the veneer of unprecedented storage and ignore the magic that surrounds anything associated with Google and you find that you are left with nothing extraordinary. Another case of media hype driving public demand?

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