The press is abuzz: Google plans to offer an e-mail service to blow away Yahoo mail and Hotmail, featuring 1 gigabyte of searchable storage -- 100 times what the others give for free. The idea is to let you Google your inbox instead of having to file messages into topical folders. If this is for real, it could cause the largest migration of personal information in history.
The idea of indexing your personal messages instead of manually filing into categories is exactly analogous to Googling the Web instead of Yahooing it; it makes perfect sense. I first observed someone doing this circa 1993: Hal Varian, now dean of SIMS at Berkeley, then of U Michigan, showed me how he used WAIS on his Next workstation to index all of his e-mail.
So it's a fantastic idea. Maybe too fantastic: the press release has a couple of fishy quotes; you can't sign up for the service, only register for more info; and today is... April 1. The purported site, gmail.google.com, appeared and then vanished, but not before I got a screen cap. (As of later in the morning, the Gmail site came back up. But it still only lets you sign up to receive future information.)
My first bet was it's an April Fool joke, and a funny way to take shots across Yahoo and Microsoft's respective bows at the height of IPO fever. Folks on the Web4lib mailing list take it to be real. Virtually all of the major media picked up the story. The coverage in The Guardian noted the whimsical aspects of the press release and the April 1 timing.
If Google really does offer this service, this story has effects far greater than poaching market share from Hotmail and Yahoo mail. It's a huge blow to ISPs and Webmail providers. It will lead to a massive shift of e-mail content from from service providers around the world to Google's servers. This could be devastating to companies such as usa.net, which charge an annual fee of $40 or more to give you a 50 megabyte mailbox -- 1/20th of what Google claims it will offer for free.
Many people manage their lives in e-mail. They refer back to messages from the boss or the prof or the spouse. They send to-do messages to themselves. A 1 gigabyte searchable mailbox would be tremendously more useful than the 10 to 50 megs other providers offer. (Universities that offer paltry 50M mail accounts will see thousands of students set forwarding to their Gmail accounts. University IT administrators everywhere must be lowering their budget estimates for new storage -- and wondering how relevant their Webmail service now is.)
When Google raises $20 billion in its IPO, it'll have plenty of cash to pay for the service. Other Webmail providers won't be able to compete; their targeted ad programs won't have Google technology and Google ad performance.