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Google tool plucks from rivals

Search king quietly adds feature to Gmail that imports contacts from Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, as e-mail competition heats up.

Google has quietly added a feature to its free e-mail service that lets people import their address book contacts from rivals Yahoo, Microsoft and America Online.

Since the weekend, Google's free e-mail service, called Gmail, has been letting its users transfer their address book contacts from Yahoo Mail, Microsoft's Hotmail and AOL Mail. Yahoo allows immediate exporting of its contact lists onto other clients such as Gmail, but for Hotmail and AOL in particular, people have to build their special files through a spreadsheet, which means the process would normally involve more steps.

Gmail's software also lets people add contacts from Microsoft's Outlook e-mail client, a feature supported by Yahoo and Hotmail as well.

A Google spokesman confirmed that the tool, and other new features, launched over the weekend. He declined to comment further, citing the company's quiet period before it goes public later this year.

The launch of the feature illustrates the rising tide of one-upmanship surrounding free e-mail. Google in April began offering a test version of Gmail that included 1GB of free storage. The launch altered the free e-mail landscape, dominated by Yahoo and Hotmail, and caused Yahoo to increase its own free storage limit from 4MB to 100MB. Hotmail then raised its storage limit from 2MB to 250MB.

While Yahoo and Hotmail have the advantage of many years of service and millions of users, Google's entry could shift the balance of power. In fact, Google has launched a number of properties, such as its Orkut social networking site and Google News, that have put it in closer competition against the Web portal giants.

Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako said the new tool doesn't change the competitive balance among the services. "Yahoo Mail users have enjoyed the ability to both import and export address book information for years, and we hope that others in the industry will share our commitment to providing consumers with a highly useful and convenient service," she said.

Microsoft did not immediately comment on the new features. The Gmail updates were first reported by Microsoft Watch.

In addition to its contact import tool, Gmail now gives users the option of including a signature at the bottom of messages. Gmail also began supporting Apple Computer's Mac OS X's Safari Web browsers, for versions 1.2.1 and newer.

Google also last week began promoting on its home page a link to Picasa, an online photo site that the company acquired last week, the spokesman confirmed.