Every day I check my Gmail, hope to get one from a female

Friday, 23 April 2004 — 8:07pm | Computing

So as a Blogger user, I am allegedly eligible for a beta account at this new Google service being set up – namely, Gmail. After reading up about the nitty-gritty of what Gmail portends to offer, maybe it’s no coincidence that they announced this service in a press release on April Fool’s Day – because you’d have to be pretty foolish to buy into the hype over the service, or alternatively, a Hotmail user, which would make you a fool by definition.

First of all, I have no idea why anybody uses web-based interfaces as their primary mode of e-mail. It may have to do with Hotmail’s historical inertia. Back when Hotmail started out in 1996 or so, and was spelt “HoTMaiL” to emphasize that it was web-based, its primary selling point was that it was “free”. It then followed that its primary appeal was to preteens who didn’t want to share an e-mail account with the one that their family got via whatever 14.4kbps dial-up service they used at the time, since back then, most ISPs would only provide that one account.

The theory goes that end-users will always follow the path of least resistance and do whatever’s easiest. The theory is wrong. As proof, I offer the fact that not only do Macintosh systems not comprise the majority of home PCs, but that despite how most dedicated cable providers will offer webspace and multiple e-mail accounts on the bill that a customer is already paying, a heck of a lot of end-users keep flocking to functionally useless, technologically-backwards services like Hotmail for e-mail and GeoCities for webspace.

But let’s bring this back to Gmail, and examine what it offers.

The key selling point, by all appearances, are their promises of a gigabyte of space so a user will never have to delete e-mail to stay under some kind of cap. Apparently, this is meant to come off as an innovation. Right now, the only storage cap for my e-mail, provided I check it more than once every few months, is the remaining free space on my hard drive. I’m going to make a leap of logic here and say that most people with e-mail accounts probably have computers. Those computers probably have storage media, unless your name is Larry Ellison and you still think the Network PC is a viable idea.

So the majority of people would rather check their e-mail by logging into a web interface; downloading a list of messages embellished by formatting, scripts and advertisements; downloading a new page for each individual message read or created; then wasting more loading time by having to refresh their inbox with each deletion or attempt to read the next twenty messages – rather than use a POP3 or IMAP client, even the rudimentary Outlook Express that comes pre-installed on every Windows machine, which is relatively far more intuitive and expedient? If you have a problem with webmail storage caps, it’s not a problem with existing e-mail services, it’s entirely your fault for deliberately picking a useless one.

Then Google boasts of its own claim to fame as applied to e-mail – that is, search capabilities. Again, show me how this is something that proper e-mail clients don’t already offer. Show me how it’s preferable to have a server-side search process dependent on another system when you could just search your saved e-mails yourself using your own computer’s processing power alone.

Now here’s a good one: threaded conversations – that is, organizing a series of replies all under one heading. Once again, it seems like webmail is finally trying to catch up to where e-mail was over a decade ago. Threading e-mails and newsgroup messages in Outlook or Eudora is as simple as a menu selection or a click of a button. There is no need to refresh new pages from a server. You can read archived messages while offline.

Gmail claims to be completely free of advertising – well, except for those targeted ones off to the side, but apparently those are okay because they’re computer-targeted, not human-targeted, and they don’t pop up in new windows. The latter would make some degree of sense considering how Google puts out a pop-up-blocking browser toolbar. As for the former – text advertising? How about no advertising?

Name one major website that provides an apparently free, minimal-advertising service that has stayed that way. After years of experience watching the Angelfires and EZBoards crash and burn – not to mention Hotmail itself, which was doomed to this quagmire from the start – the lesson hasn’t changed: you can only go so far on the Internet before the tides of business sense turn you back. The best ad-free business model on the Web – Homestar Runner – hardly applies here; I doubt Google is going to get that far with T-shirt sales alone, and Yahoo! should have taught it a thing or two about gambling on the IPO.

The other day, someone asked me for the HTML trick that circumvents the generated advertising on Angelfire pages. Frankly, that advertising was his deserved punishment for even using such a service on the basis of its being “free”. It was already useless years ago when one could link images externally and there were no daily traffic limits, and it remains useless to this day.

So once again: why do people use web-based e-mail, when it’s analogous to washing your dishes at a laundromat, or ordering a burger at a Chinese restaurant?

I can see exactly two practical reasons: the first is that yes, sometimes people have to check their e-mail from remote terminals – say, for instance, if they’re on vacation for two weeks and have some immediate replies to take care of in the lobby of a hotel in Inchon, South Korea. However, most POP-based accounts already have web interfaces for exactly that purpose – so you can check messages immediately while away from your own machine, yet download them into your personal files as soon as you return home. It’s the primary or exclusive use of webmail that poses a problem. As a secondary interface, it works fine. But of course other people’s computers are going to have a finite amount of space for permanent storage, when such services have to take care of so many other customers.

The second is that you can now use this extra e-mail address to sign up for things, and never check it while it accumulates with junk you don’t want. This is entirely acceptable.

If you already stuck yourself with a Hotmail account for whatever masochistic reason, by all means, switch to Gmail. It’s like rolling out of a puddle in the middle of a street and lying in the gutter where it’s safe – an improvement. But by no means be hoodwinked into thinking that this is a new and revolutionary solution to any problems short of ignorance and stupidity – and when I say that, I’m not referring to computer illiteracy. Computer-illiterates, of all people, should not be making their own lives harder than necessary.

For my part, I’ll continue to use an e-mail program, not even the best one there is, that came installed with my computer and allows me to centralize my five or six e-mail accounts all in one place where if I want to look up a snippet or quotation from several years ago, I can. If I want to move everything over for permanent storage on a new machine, I can. It appears that those of us with the sense to do this are in the minority.

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