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First Look: Gmail

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Gmail
Google's new Web mail service is free and provides a gigabyte of storage, but also raises privacy concerns. We put the beta version through its paces.

Google's yet-to-launch Gmail is, arguably, already as well-known as free e-mail stalwarts such as Microsoft's Hotmail. In part, this is due to the high expectations generally placed on anything from the Google stable. But the debate over privacy issues surrounding the advertising-driven business model that Gmail will use, when it launches, is also a factor.

Google has not yet set a date for the widespread availability of Gmail (this still appears to be several months away), but it has offered 1,000 trial accounts, and ZDNet has had a good look at the beta version.

When it does launch, Gmail is certain to see a deluge of users signing up. Those who worry about the privacy issues will probably ignore it, but many will find that its features and convenience outweigh any security concerns.

What do you get with Gmail?
First of course, there is 1GB of space. This is significantly more than most other free e-mail accounts, and also puts many corporate e-mail allocations to shame. Google plans to subsidise the cost of all this space through advertising -- in the terms and conditions, you have to agree to Google serving targeted adverts. In place of banner ads or pop-ups, you get the familiar text-only Google ads ranged down the right-hand side of the window containing the e-mail; they are not intrusive, and the ads only appear in your Gmail window -- they are not attached to e-mails that you send out.

Below the ads come a couple of related links from Google's search engine, picked according to the subject matter of the e-mail. Google says that e-mails are scanned automatically, and that no personal information that could link subject matter to a name will be divulged to any advertiser.

One issue that's raised by having 1GB of e-mail is: how do you manage your e-mails and find those that are stored? Predictably, Gmail is search-based. It is also heavily thread-orientated and uses labels to classify threads, which Gmail calls 'discussions'. These are the three central themes of the service.

Gmail inbox view

The inbox view, showing e-mails and threads, which are called 'discussions' in Gmail parlance. Labels, where assigned, are shown next to the subject.

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Threading becomes apparent within your first few e-mails; instead of displaying every e-mail by default, Gmail's inbox view simply displays the first message of each thread, or discussion. Organisation is aided by labels. You can define as many labels as you wish, and Gmail has four types set up by default: Inbox, Starred (a simple highlighting device), Spam and Trash.

Unlike folders, labels can overlap, meaning that mailing list items in your inbox from, say, Politechbot.org, can be labelled 'Politechbot', and all those concerning privacy could be labelled 'privacy'. You can then choose to display only Politechbot e-mails or only e-mails regarding privacy issues, but some e-mails will appear in both views. It's a simple Boolean 'OR' function, and currently there's no way to apply other Boolean logic to the views. For instance, you cannot exclusively select those e-mails that are labelled both 'Politechbot' and 'Privacy' ('AND') or just those that are labelled 'Politechbot' but not 'Privacy' ('NOT'), and so on.

Gmail labels

User-defined labels are used instead of folders for organising e-mails and discussions. An e-mail can be assigned any number of labels.

For finding e-mails, you'll probably rely heavily on Google's search engine, which is typically and necessarily thorough. By default, it operates on content, subject and e-mail addresses. Search options allow you to search any of these fields exclusively, identify which (if not all) labels should be searched, search for conversations that do not contain a particular word (again in a particular label if you like), and specify whether the search should be performed only on those discussions that have attachments.

A useful date feature lets you search only those e-mails that arrived on a particular date or within a range of days, weeks or months from that date. Instead of displaying every matching e-mail at the end of a search, Gmail displays the threads; you have to click on one to see the whole thread with matching words highlighted.

Gmail search

Search is used for finding old e-mails; the advanced search is particularly useful.

Alongside Search is the Filter option. This contains many of the same choices, allowing you to filter incoming e-mails by e-mail address, subject, words either contained or missing in the content, and by whether they have attachments. For each filter, you can specify whether an e-mail should skip the inbox and go straight to the archive, get a particular label assigned to it, or go straight to trash.

Gmail filters

Users can create any number of filters to organise e-mail as it arrives.

Archiving is a term that simply means an e-mail (or discussion) ceases to show up in the inbox. It will still be included by default in searches, but that appears to be the only way to reach it -- there's no option to view the archive in Gmail. Beyond archiving, you can send e-mails and discussion to the Trash folder/label (which you can view). The only way to delete e-mail forever (at least as far as the user is concerned -- Google specifically states in its terms that it will not guarantee that the data that makes up the e-mail is ever actually wiped from its servers) is from the Trash folder. This, presumably, is Google putting weight behind its claim that Gmail users will never have to delete e-mail again.

Google has obviously paid a great deal of attention to the interface. Changing a search option has a corresponding effect on the discussions that are returned, but there is no apparent whole page refresh; only the list of returned discussions refreshes. It's very slick in practice.

Gmail discussions

e-mails are organised as discussions. Performing a search returns the entire discussion, which can then be browsed. The text-only adverts are shown down the right-hand side of this view.

Another nod to usability is contained in the keyboard shortcuts. These are turned off by default, but when turned on allow you to navigate between discussions, through e-mails within discussions, and perform most other essential functions without touching a mouse.

Gmail settings

The mail settings window has only very basic options, such as switching on keyboard shortcuts (which are set to off by default).

Google has taken a characteristically simple approach with Gmail, which means, for instance, that there's no POP3 or SMTP access: you have to use Google's Web interface. Also, the shortest username that Gmail will accept is six characters, which some people are bound to care about. In its terms and conditions, the company says the service can only be employed for personal use, but it's likely to find favour among many professionals at least as a backup e-mail service, or as somewhere to forward all those e-mails with big attachments that eat up their miserly corporate space allocations. Google's new Web mail service is free and provides a gigabyte of storage, but also raises privacy concerns. We put the beta version through its paces.

Terms and conditions

Gmail's terms of use are, for the most part, pretty straightforward. Because the service is free, it's provided 'as is' -- Google can close it without notice at any time and without any liability. Also, Google says it will close any account that's not logged into for 90 days. There is the clause regarding e-mails remaining in the system once they have been deleted -- but anyone who seriously believes that deleting e-mails in any system removes all trace should probably surrender their PC now.

The really contentious part of the terms and conditions relates to adverts. Here, you agree that Google will serve ads relevant to the content of your e-mail using a completely automated process. Nobody will read your e-mail. However, Google has given itself a get-out by stating that no human will read the content of your e-mail in order to target such advertisements or other information without your consent (our emphasis).

What does this mean? We don't know. We have seen companies offering spam-filtering services in the past that use people to read corporate e-mails, but this is not an easy game to play. Even with the highest vetting procedures, you still never really know exactly who is reading your e-mail, and just what their motivation is for being there. If you don't want anybody to read your Gmails, just say no. And if you don't want a machine to read your e-mails, go elsewhere or use encryption.

Google states in its terms that it welcomes feedback, and that the privacy policy may change before the service goes live. However, the company is unlikely to change the ad-placement policy unless it meets some unmovable obstacle in the form of legislative bodies.

So far, that has not happened. In the UK, an initial complaint from Privacy International about Gmail was struck down earlier this month by Britain's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), partly on the grounds that under EU law, an Internet service is considered lawful as long as it explicitly spells out how the user's details will be handled in the terms of service. The Information Commissioner's view is that as long as Google is clear and transparent, there is no data protection issue.

However Privacy International's point is that because consent for e-mails to be read can only be given by an account holder, those who send e-mail to a Gmail customer will have no opportunity to consent to having their e-mail read for keywords.

So what, exactly, does the privacy policy say?

Google says:

  • 'We collect limited account information and store and maintain your account and e-mail messages on our secure servers.'
  • 'We will never rent, sell or share information that personally identifies you for marketing purposes without your express permission.'
  • 'No human reads your e-mail to target ads or related information to you without your consent.'

The information that Google collects includes basic personal information for the account, such as first and last names, a backup e-mail address and a 'secret question' (together with an answer) in case you forget your password. And what about when you click on an advert attached to your e-mail? Google says that a referring URL is sent to the advertiser's site identifying that you are visiting from Gmail, but that it does not send personally identifying information to advertisers with the referring URL.

Those who care deeply about the privacy of their e-mails will find reason not to use this service -- but then, those individuals should arguably be encrypting all their e-mail anyway. For the rest of us, the adverts will either be ignored or provide an interesting diversion.

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