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Gmail: Just a Bit Too Quirky

Give the Google team credit. They rethought e-mail down to its very roots, then last year created Gmail, a revolutionary form of Web mail.

This piece, the third in a series of reviews on Google tools takes a look at Gmail's novel approach (see BW Online, 10/12/05, "Google's Still Got It" and 9/22/05, "Google's Lackluster Blog Search").

ODDBALL APPROACH. Gmail does away with folders, and entrusts organization to what Google (GOOG) does best: search. The service now offers a generous 2.6 gigabytes of storage space, virtually eliminating the need to erase messages. And when you trade e-mails with someone, Gmail makes it simple to follow the thread of the conversation. Gmail celebrates innovation.

But you know something funny? I rarely use my Gmail account. It's clever, I find, but weird. And the soon-to-be released Yahoo! (YHOO) e-mail service that I'm testing blends the good features of Gmail -- lots of storage, great search -- with a more traditional approach that I find comfortable.

An example of Gmail's quirks: Early last summer, I sent a Gmail message to a friend, asking if she'd be going to a mutual friend's birthday party. Turned out she wasn't invited, which led to quite an embarrassment. For months, every message we sent back and forth carried not only the same original label -- "Going to the B-day party?" -- but gathered all the correspondence into one big ball.

IN THE BIN. I would have preferred to leave behind the individual pieces, each one anchored to its original date. I finally started a different string by composing a new message, rather than simply sending a response. And now, as long as we both keep hitting the reply button, another compilation is taking shape.

Looking at the Gmail in-box takes some getting used to. Your own e-mails are tagged simply "Me," and all of the e-mails received and sent are piled together. It's an eyesore. The best way to deal with it is to tag and archive the e-mails.

Although initially disappointed not to find familiar folders, I discovered that Gmail's tagging system works better, because you can cross-reference. If you get an e-mail from your sister about your father, for example, you can tag it with "father" and "sister," and find it in both bins.

UBIQUITOUS EYES. Of course, in the true Google approach, you can dispense with these organizational crutches and simply rely on the search box at the top of the page. As you might expect, it's lightning-fast and accurate.

When Gmail was released in mid-2004, its advertising strategy raised a hubbub. The service combs through the correspondence looking for themes, then drops small, contextually relevant ads into the right-hand margin of the page.

One point in Google's defense: If the idea of computers raking through your mail is worrisome, you might as well skip e-mail altogether. Spam filters are constantly monitoring all of our messages and analyzing the content. The only difference is that they're not all dropping in ads -- and I've barely noticed the ones on Gmail.

A LITTLE SLOW. Compared to Gmail, the new Yahoo service is a throwback to classic e-mail. But it feels more like a desktop setup, such as Microsoft (MSFT) Outlook, than a Web tool. It's a cinch to drag e-mails into folders (yes, folders), and the pages feel broader and more substantial than traditional Web-mail pages.

Like Gmail, Yahoo's upcoming mail includes an excellent search function. Both systems provide a glimpse into each document, allowing you to see the content.

The downside of the new Yahoo service could be its size. It takes a few seconds for the computer to load the application. And, if you have several hundred messages in your in-box, it takes additional time to list them all -- more reason to put things into folders. Any e-mailers out there who still use a narrowband connection may want to stick with an older, simpler service. For now, the leader in that trailing pack would be Microsoft's creaky Hotmail.

STORE OF VALUE. For most of Gmail's first year, Google limited access to its e-mail system. Now it's open to everyone -- at least everyone willing to provide a mobile-phone number. (Google, looking ahead to mobile search, clearly wants that database of wireless-phone numbers.)

For those with the time and inclination to tinker with something new, Gmail is worth checking out. And even if its idiosyncrasies leave you cold, it's still a handy place to store loads of digital data.

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