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No Gag: Google's plan for e-mail draws ogles

By DAVE GUSSOW
Published April 2, 2004

First, online search king Google said Thursday it was getting into the free e-mail business dominated by Microsoft and Yahoo. Then it had to persuade people it was not a hoax.

Part of the skepticism came from the announcement coming on April Fool's Day and Google's well-known sense of humor. But more seemed to be over the sheer scope of what Google says it will offer in its Gmail (www.gmail.com) service, being tested by about 1,000 users.

Gmail will give users a full gigabyte of storage free, enough for 500,000 pages and hundreds of times more than Yahoo and Hotmail provide their users. Gmail will allow a single message of up to 10 megabytes, which is more than Yahoo and Hotmail allow total in their free space. In fact, 100 megabytes, about 10 percent of Gmail's capacity, costs about $50 a year at Yahoo and $60 at Hotmail.

Google says it will eliminate the need for files by using its technology to let users search "every e-mail they've ever sent or received" and by grouping related messages to appear as an ongoing "conversation."

Yet to pay for the service, Google will use automated software to place ads in the messages. So, for example, if you write to a friend about a movie, a text ad for a DVD or soundtrack might appear. The company says it will have no way of tracking such information, but it has been criticized before about potential problems on privacy issues.

"I don't think (the ads) will be annoying at all," Google co-founder Larry Page told the Associated Press. "We think this will give us a business model that will work and allow us to provide a high-quality service."

Google's move is the latest in an escalating competition with Microsoft and Yahoo to attract online users to their sites. Microsoft and Yahoo are beefing up their search engines, and Google is countering by adding e-mail.

E-mail has been the most popular online activity for years and is a lucrative foundation for portals. The average e-mail user checked messages 13 out of 29 days in February, according to Internet measurement service comScore Media Metrix, and spent four hours on the activity.

In comScore's ratings, Yahoo is the top Internet site with about 110-million unique visitors a month, Microsoft's MSN is No. 3 with about 108-million, and Google No. 5 with about 61-million.

But Google has expanded beyond its core Web search function, now offering things such as news, catalog shopping and newsgroups. It also has become one of the Web's major success stories, turning a $350-million profit in the last year, according to the New York Times.

"It is ingenious the way they're doing these things," said Chris Winfield, a member of the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization and president of 10e20, a search engine marketing firm in New York. "People are dying to get a Gmail account."

But even Winfield had to pause early in the day to ask "Is it real?" about Gmail. Among other things, sometimes the Web address didn't work and online commentary was abuzz with speculation that it was all an April Fool's joke, with headlines such as "Elvis: First Known Gmail User."

Google has a pattern of changing its logo for special occasions, such as St. Patrick's Day, and once posted this job opening: "Google is interviewing candidates for engineering positions at our lunar hosting and research center, opening late in the spring of 2007."

But at its California headquarters, a company spokesman assured it was no hoax. "It's for real."

- Information from Times wires was used in this report. Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or 727771-4328.

[Last modified April 2, 2004, 01:20:42]

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