Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Gmail turns 10. Privacy sighs.

Ten years ago today, Google launched its web-based Google Mail - or Gmail - service. At the time, only a few lucky souls were eligible to use the limited-access beta, and for a while, invitations to the service were coveted - some folks even tried to auction them off on eBay.

Gmail wasn't the first web-based email service, but it was, and in many ways still is, the best one out there. Before Gmail came along, most services, like Hotmail, offered a comparatively tiny amount of online storage. You had to constantly delete messages because if you hit your 2 megabyte storage limit, you'd stop receiving messages altogether (so much for off-the-grid vacations.)

Gmail, with its then-revolutionary one gigabyte of online storage (500 times as much as Hotmail), changed all that. You didn't have to delete a message if you didn't want to - which made it easy to use your inbox as a searchable extension of your brain.

It was also much slicker than traditional webmail, as it used innovative online programming techniques to make it look and feel like a regular piece of software and not a static web page. It was an early example of the so-called "Web 2.0", and it opened the door to a wave of rich, dynamic web services. When you hear about "the cloud", Gmail was arguably the first truly successful example of it.

Since then, it's only gotten better. Storage is now up to 25Gb (and still free). You can pay for even more if you like, and many companies now use it as their corporate messaging service. It integrates into a wide range of Google services - Calendar, Contacts, even Maps - and it easily works on any smartphone, tablet or PC. Just sign in and start working. We never again have to worry about losing all our mail because our hard drive crashed.

The downside? Privacy. "Free" online services aren't really free. Providers like Google use software to monitor our activities, then serve up ads that reflect our interests. That's what pays for all those great services and storage. It's all outlined in the terms-of-use agreements that we never bother to read. That data - our data, the stuff we generate in everyday use of these services - is gold to advertisers, and has become the new online currency. The more we rely on these services, the more we're letting companies and strangers learn about our private lives.

Is it worth it? The verdict is still out. But with 500 million of us now using Gmail, I'm guessing most of us are willing to trade privacy for convenience. Welcome to the new age.

Your turn: Is the privacy trade-off worth it?


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I've got a gmail account (two, now...google made me get one to go with the blog).

Long before that, I had Yahoo mail, and still do. In some ways, it works better.

Kalei's Best Friend said...

I don't think anything is truly private... and especially if it's 'free'... there are and always will be drawbacks to anything that is offered at 'free'.. if it sounds too good, then it usually is too good to be true..Its our responsibility to limit what we post online especially on social media... I may be the only one w/out an acct. to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever else attracts bad element that reeks havoc on innocent folks.

rashbre said...

I'm mildly shocked to think the gmail has been going 10 years. I remember those invitations to join and it seemed somehow more recent.

The privacy thing continues to be well debated. My more recent concern is how these systems are attempting to link deliberately separated personas to derive ever more information about an individual.