Gmail moves to next stage

The search giant is opening Gmail up to more people--but says the free e-mail service remains in beta.

2 min read
Social networking is out and straight invitations are in at Google's free e-mail service, but the official line is that the shift does not signal an end to Gmail's beta status.

Google is giving more people the chance to sign up for Gmail, but the search giant insists the move does not signify an impending full-scale launch of the free e-mail service, which has been in beta since it launched on April 1 last year.

To date, Google has been relying on social networking to roll out Gmail, initially inviting some 2,000 people, who were then able to invite a limited number of others themselves. This week though, Google started sending invitations directly to those who have signed up to be kept abreast of updates to the service.

"We're sending invitations to those who supported us during the launch," said a Google representative. But she added, "This does not mean that we're out of beta (or) offering open subscriptions to the world."

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Interest in the service has been high. It made a stir both because it kicked off the move toward bundling significant amounts of storage with free e-mail accounts--1GB in Gmail's case--and because of the revenue model, which relies on context-sensitive advertisements placed alongside e-mails as they are read.

Despite privacy concerns over Gmail, the service has proved alluring, with eBay at one point offering as many as 2,000 listings for Gmail invitations.

Google has since banned sales and swaps, though eBay sellers are still offering some.

In another sign of the service's popularity, a number of utilities have appeared to help people manage their Gmail accounts.

Matt Loney of ZDNet UK reported from London.