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Why Gmail gives me the creeps

CNET's Charles Cooper says the big thinkers at Google should go back to the drawing board and correct a big mistake before it's too late.

Google's debut of a Web-based e-mail service thrust this most hyped creation of Silicon Valley's venture capitalist community back onto center stage this week. On the surface, it sounds like a wow idea. You get one gigabyte of storage and don't pay a copper cent in return. Credit the folks at Google for doing something for the common user. My other Web mail accounts too often reach the maximum storage capacity and shut down until I purge my in-box.

This is the kind of technology advance that gives me the creeps.
What's more, my hunch is that Microsoft and Yahoo will eventually respond in kind, lest they fall behind Google, which has been the beneficiary of fawning treatment in the press in the run-up to its initial public offering.

But all the encomia that's greeting the announcement of "Gmail" distracts attention from the fact that there's yet a hidden price you will still pay, albeit in the form of a different sort of coin.

The Google contextual advertising system automatically scans for frequently used terms in order to serve up ads. This constitutes a neat technology fix for Internet advertisers, who are always seeking to find ways to make their spots more convincing to Web surfers. For instance, if you e-mail a friend to play tennis this weekend, the system would lock onto the keyword and send you a relevant advertisement from a tennis gear supplier.

Sounds like a mind-blower, if you're the marketing director for Wilson Sporting Goods. Truth be told, however, this is the kind of technology advance that gives me the creeps.

News analysis

Gmail is a radical new
approach to free e-mail,
but what about privacy?

Contextual advertising has been around for years. Type "dominatrix" as a search term, and you'll find enough hard-core bondage and fetish ads to keep you occupied for quite some time. But search is one category; your e-mail is quite another. Do you really want Google snooping so close to home? The company says it is not going to read the contents of anyone's in-box. Still, you don't need to be a privacy extremist to realize that this fundamentally remains a bad idea.

So, why is Google taking such a risk? In a word: Microsoft.

The folks in Redmond have been slow to get to market with a good search technology. Windows XP has a search function, but Microsoft expects to debut a killer search technology with Longhorn, the code name for the next important version of the Windows operating system. Company executives acknowledge that they're late to market, but they also express confidence in their ability to surpass Google's search technology.

Chest beating? To be sure. But Microsoft, not Google, owns the operating system.

Search is one category; your e-mail is quite another.
That's why Microsoft is talking about letting users do things like search out Windows Media tunes they once played or locate spreadsheet files from years' past. And after getting (rightly) slammed for all its privacy woes, my guess is that Microsoft will be more Catholic than the pope, when it comes to e-mail privacy and search. Besides, what better way to draw an invidious comparison with the competition?

Google was not first to market with search, but it was better than the rest and ultimately became No. 1. Microsoft can say the same about Internet browsers, spreadsheets and word processors. The point here: Technology tastes do change.

If it becomes a matter of an arms race, a company with a multibillion-dollar research and development budget can afford to take its time. That's why the big thinkers at Google should go back to the drawing board and correct a big mistake, before it's too late.