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Google's New Gmail

Frustrated trying to find a piece of information you know is on your computer somewhere? As our hard drives grow in size and we accumulate more data, the ability to quickly search for data is an important need; a need that's not being met by Windows or Macintosh. While some of us may have the discipline to organize, save and discard documents and files as we work, most don't bother. It takes time away from immediate, more pressing work and it becomes more difficult to do with all of the disparate data and e-mail we accumulate.

Google has done a great job in helping us search for information on the Internet. Retrieving information on our computer ought to be trivial by comparison. But Windows' lack of fast, effective search capabilities is now considered to be one of its greatest weaknesses. Its next version, due out in late 2005, called Longhorn, will use a totally new file organization structure to address this weakness. Fortunately, we need not wait that long, as there are new solutions that have been recently introduced from other companies.

X1 (www.X1.com), which I reviewed in my March 8 column, does a great job of finding information on your computer with just a few keystrokes. It separately searches e-mail, files, attachments and contacts. I use it incessantly and love it ($99 with a free 15-day trial). An enterprise version is now in the works for networked computers.

A new e-mail product has just been introduced that tackles the e-mail search problem differently. Google's new Gmail (www.gmail.com), announced this past month, is an Internet e-mail service, designed to compete with Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail. Gmail offers a huge, free 1GB of online storage, enough capacity to hold years of e-mail. Its key feature is the ability to perform Google-like searches of your Gmail. In return for this service, Google displays ads off to the side of its e-mail messages, much like they do now on Google search pages. The ads are context-sensitive, based on the contents of the e-mail. Google promises to do this tastefully, meaning you won't see ads for pornography if there are some expletives in your e-mail; nor will they promote questionable products such as medical and diet cures. Gmail's scanning of the mail, including the mail sent to the user by others, even though it's done without human intervention, is creating a controversy about the loss of personal confidentiality of e-mail.

I've been using a beta version of Gmail for about a week, and it is a well-designed product with many excellent features. The e-mail can be organized by conversations, messages can be annotated, and the interface is clean and simple, devoid of banner ads, flashing ads and other distractions found on Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail. Searching your e-mail works much like a Google search; enter text in a box, click, and the relevant e-mails are displayed in a list. In my testing, I pasted this column into a Gmail and sent it to myself. It inserted small, unobtrusive ads, far to the right of the message, for FranklinCovey (NYSE: FC), a kitchen and garage organizer company, and a day planner site.

Is Gmail worth the sacrifice of privacy for what it offers? I've found Google to be a trustworthy company that clearly describes their products' privacy issues, so that customers know what they will do and hopefully will trust what they say. Google's disclosures go well beyond many companies that do not disclose how they use your personal data or what products they install on your computer without your permission. I trust Google to do what they say. In fact, I believe my privacy is more likely to be compromised by companies who don't tell me what they do. And I think we'd all be surprised to learn how little privacy we actually have, with personal data being collected and shared by credit bureaus, insurance companies and supermarkets. Therefore, in my opinion, much of the criticism leveled at Google is more perception than reality.

That said, I probably would not use this service because it doesn't allow me to access my e-mail when offline, unless I download a copy of my Gmail to my computer, but then I lose its search capabilities and other features and add to my organization woes.

Nevertheless, I think Gmail is an excellent implementation that continues Google's string of highly innovative products that solve real problems. It is up to all of you to decide for yourselves whether its capabilities outweigh its disadvantages. For now, I'll stick with X1.

Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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