Google, the company that made off with the search market, is setting its sights on free email.
The company has launched a test with about 1,000 invited guests to try out a new email service called "Gmail".
The company is wary of announcing a launch date for the service until beta testing is complete, but according to Kate Burns, managing director of the Google UK's Ad Sales business, it will be widely available to consumers in a matter of weeks rather than months.
"My feeling is that we have already done an awful lot of testing, so it will be a limited test period -- a matter of weeks,' said Burns. She added that service will be available on the Google UK home page soon after its launch in the US, and will then be localised into different languages and made available across the international Google network over time.
Google, which made its name in search but has added numerous services, such as a news-aggregation page and a newsgroup interface, says that Gmail is search-based email.
Like Yahoo Mail and MSN Hotmail, Gmail will let users search through their email but here Google clearly hopes to exploit its search brand and offer a stronger product than its competition: "It will feel like a Google search, it will be very clean, very fast, and very efficient," said Burns.
Hotmail currently offers 2MB of free email storage. Yahoo offers 4MB. Gmail will dwarf those offerings with a 1GB storage limit. Google will be offering enough storage so that the average email account holder will never have to delete messages.
"The idea is that your mail can stay in there forever," said Wayne Rosing, vice president of engineering at Google. "You can always index it, always search it, and always find things from the past."
Burns said this would solve the problems she's experienced with existing Web mail products.
"I've used both the Microsoft and Yahoo free mail products, but I've have had to delete old emails, or I've come back and found all my emails are gone. We believe that the user should have the ability to store all their email," said Burns.
Microsoft in a press statement: "The offering appears to be a very limited beta that we have not yet seen; therefore we cannot provide specific comment. It will be interesting to see how Google's trial develops and what they ultimately will deliver broadly to consumers. We are very focused on ensuring that our 170 million active MSN Hotmail customers are increasingly satisfied with the world's largest Web-based email service."
The new Google email service sounds like a free lunch for consumers -- but there is a catch. Google plans to make money from the service by inserting ads into messages based in part on their content, effectively extending its AdSense programme for presenting contextual ads in Web pages to email.
The service will not be available without the contextual ads, which will feature existing advertisers signed up for the company's AdSense programme, which already provides contextual advertising around search results. Some users might feel a little uneasy about the idea of Google effectively reading their email in search of advertising prompts, so Burns is quick to emphasise that this process will be done in software, rather than by snooping Google employees.
"People won't know what you're discussing, but our algorithms will. If they don't want to see advertising, they will have to opt out of the email service," said Burns.
When asked whether Gmail represented further evidence that Google is muscling in on the turf of Yahoo, MSN and other Web portals, Rosing demurred.
"The way we'd like to say it is that part of our mission is to organise and present all the world's information, and email is part of that information that currently is not well organised. That is the rubric under which we offer this."
Brown echoed this denial, saying: "We are not becoming a portal. Our mission is to organise the world's information, and email is one of those areas that contains a vast amount of information."
A joke-filled press release from Google to launch Gmail, and the fact the service has been announced on April 1st, has prompted some observers to question whether the announcement is simply an elaborate hoax. Google UK assures us that it's not - but you never know.
"We've been preparing for this launch for a long, long time, so if it is a joke, then the joke's on us," said Google's Burns.
News.com's Paul Festa contributed to this report.