By Rob Pegoraro
How is 2007 just like 2006 -- and 2005? Google's Gmail site is still
in beta, as is Microsoft's Live Mail and the new version of Yahoo
Gmail ( http://gmail.com ) has now spent 33 months in this testing
phase, while Yahoo Mail ( http://mail.yahoo.com ) and the Hotmail
successor Live Mail ( http://mail.live.com ) have lasted about 16 and
14 months, respectively.
Apparently, it now takes more time to finish developing a Web site
than a Web browser -- or even an entire operating system. (Not even
Windows Vista has undergone such a lengthy public audition.)
The fact that these three companies don't consider their free Web-mail
sites housebroken doesn't mean that they don't want you to use them.
They've got ads to sell. And time you spend reading and writing e-mail
at these sites translates into money they can make off your activity.
The beta-testing status of these sites means each company's sales
pitch often amounts to "trust us": Trust us that we'll add new
features, fix the things that you dislike and catch up to whatever
options our competitors already provide.
The developers of these Web-mail sites may have infinite patience, but
you shouldn't. Choose a Web-mail site based on how it works today, not
on how they say it'll work tomorrow, next month, next year or whenever
they finally abandon the b-word.
By that standard, your choice should be easy: Use Gmail.
Google's Web-mail has the cleanest interface -- dominated either by a
simple vertical list of messages or the message you're reading or
writing -- and loads the quickest. In comparison, Yahoo suffers a
distracting delay after you log in, then wastes so much of the screen
with a vertical ad banner that you must scroll sideways to read most
messages; Live Mail works faster but has an equally inefficient layout
that also requires frequent side-to-side scrolling.
Gmail is smarter about organizing messages, too. It groups related
replies into "conversations" and lets you sort old e-mail by "tagging"
it by topic -- in effect, filing it in two or more places at once. It
takes a little getting used to, but this tagging system works much
better for large volumes of mail than the conventional folders Yahoo and
Live Mail provide.
Gmail's absurdly high quota -- you can squirrel away almost three
gigabytes' worth of mail, compared to one each for Live Mail and Yahoo
-- often draws attention. But unless you're a compulsive hoarder, you'll
may never approach any service's storage limits.
If a fellow Gmail user is logged on at the same time as you, Gmail
lets you sidestep the lag of e-mail altogether and open an
instant-messaging chat session in the same browser window. (Yahoo and
Microsoft say they will add similar features to their Web-mail
services later on.)
Gmail is also the most compatible service around: If you use any
modern browser -- Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera -- you get
the same Gmail. Yahoo forces users of Safari and Opera to stick with
its old interface.
Live Mail is even more exclusive. To use the service at all, you first
need to upgrade a Hotmail account by signing in at
http://ideas.live.com then wait anywhere from a day to two weeks for
it to be converted. Even then, Live Mail is missing some features in
Unlike its competitors, Gmail provides more than minimal access over
Internet-connected cellphones. Its mobile-Web version allows you to
view most attached documents right on the phone's screen, since Google
extracts and displays their text for you -- a feature also available
in its full-size identity.
If you want even faster access to Gmail on the go, you can install and
run a separate, free Gmail program on many smartphones. Yahoo and Live
Mail have nothing comparable.
Finally, Gmail is the only service of these three that lets you
download your messages to any standard e-mail program, such as Outlook
or Thunderbird, at no charge. (AOL's free Web-mail service, though
unremarkable in many other respects, includes this option, too.)
To enjoy all these advantages, you merely need to let Google's computers
read through all your e-mail.
While other Web-mail sites serve up large graphical ads on every
screen, targeted only in broad demographic terms, Google displays
text-only ads to the right of each e-mail -- picked automatically by
its software to match the content of each message.
So, for instance, an update from a local farmers' market featured ads
alongside for cookbooks, diets and somebody's "Infused Avocado Oil."
Not to depress Google's advertisers, but I had to scroll sideways to
read these ads at all -- they're normally cut off by the right edge of
my browser window.
The prospect of strange computers scanning your mail to match up ads
may be unsettling, even though Google pledges that it doesn't sell or
share any of this data with other companies.
But you shouldn't let it bug you unless, maybe, you fall into one
category of Web-mail use.
If you only employ Web-mail as a secondary inbox for commercial
correspondence -- an address you hand out when you shop online or
register at sites -- you're not subjecting any personal secrets to
Gmail's automated scrutiny anyway.
If you keep a Web-mail account as a backup for your regular home or
work address, the same situation applies. (You might, however, avoid
Live Mail in this case: If you don't log into your account for 120
days, Microsoft will deactivate your address and erase your e-mail
until you log back in and reactivate it.)
But what if you plan to employ a Web-mail account as your primary e-mail
address? That can be a complicated value judgment. Gmail's ads are
generally in good taste, but do you want every bit of personal
correspondence to arrive with its own marketing payload?
There's also the nagging issue of Gmail's developers not considering
the service "done" after 33 months of effort -- thought it may be
comforting to learn that Google employees themselves use Gmail.
But the real sticking point may be whether you want to trust your most
important messages to any free service at all.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro
Copyright 2007 The Washington Post Company
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