You've Got Gmail

Well, Only If You Know The Right People. Google's New E-mail Service Has Become The Internet's Hottest Address, But Is It Merely Part Of The Company's Attempt At World Domination?

May 20, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Do you want Gmail?

Of course you want Gmail. The new e-mail program from Google has quickly become the most coveted on the Internet. It has 250 times more storage space than other e-mail services. It lets you search all your messages using Google's vaunted search technology. And the design of Gmail - elegant and functional like Google itself - is a thing of beauty.

But how do you get Gmail? This is tougher. You could wait until the summer or fall, when Google plans to offer Gmail to the public for free. But if you want it now - and who wants to wait until the doors are open to just anyone? - the only way to get Gmail is by invitation from one of the several thousand Gmail users testing the service.

Gmail is the latest goody to come from the crack minds at Google, which has quickly become the dominant Internet search engine and now is turning its attention to e-mail and dating services. Even as its growing Web presence raises privacy concerns, the company's coming public stock offering is highly anticipated for good reason: Google rarely misses.

So it's not surprising that Gmail is in demand. Dozens of current Gmail users have been auctioning on eBay their unused invitations to join Gmail. Accounts were going for up to $100 a month ago, when Gmail was unveiled. Prices were down to $70 yesterday.

Part of the early appeal of Gmail, besides its ease of use, is that so few people have it and so many people want it. Sheri Parks, a pop-culture professor at the University of Maryland, says the people using Gmail now are "early adapters" - the people who love to be first.

"It's not about the product itself but getting it ahead of other people, and it feeds their self-identity of being particularly cool and knowledgeable," Parks says. And once you get Gmail, you're allowed to invite two other people to join.

"That's valuable," she says. "It's something to trade socially. It becomes social currency. You're now somebody who has an in with Google."

Those who don't want to pay for Gmail do have another option. A Web site has been set up where people can offer products and services in exchange for Gmail invitations. Among the offerings on - an original Nixon bumper sticker, a digital camera, a vote for John Kerry, and even a one-week rental of a beach house in Maui.

Making `conversation'

Jim Lynch, who manages technology-related Web sites from Cambridge, Mass., has been using Gmail for about a month and loves it. Besides the gigabyte of free storage, he likes what Google calls the "conversation" feature. E-mails with the same subject line are grouped together so they appear as a single entry in your in-box. Click on the most recent e-mail, and all the previous responses appear.

"People will pay money for something that is `cool' and `new,' " says Lynch, explaining why people are buying Gmail invitations. "As always, people want to have the latest and greatest, and that's what Gmail is. ... Right now supply is limited and demand is endless."

The Sun (which also got a chance to test Gmail) sent messages to 10 people who were buying and selling accounts on eBay, asking them what's so valuable about the service. Not a single one responded. While everyone wants a Gmail account, it seems, no one wants to admit they have to pay for one - or, perhaps, to arouse Google's ire for selling its product. (The company declined to comment.)

The promise of the Internet was that it would be a great equalizer, with the world's information available to anyone. To a large extent, that has happened. You can now find on the Web all sorts of good, free stuff - the complete works of Shakespeare, the texts of bills being debated in Congress, great art.

But not everything is available to everyone. Like any community, the Internet has its exclusive zones, where membership is restricted to a select few. Last year, the best example of that was Friendster, the social networking and dating site that, at first, was open only to those invited by other Friendster members. Everyone wanted in.

Eventually, Friendster allowed anyone to sign up, and the site lost its luster.

At least each member's page on Friendster still lists when that person joined, providing an exalted status to those who joined before, say, June of last year.

Now, though, there is Orkut, a new Web-based community of friends designed to help people find others with similar interests. The New Yorker reported in March that Orkut had about 150,000 members, all invited to join by other members. Membership is still by invitation only.

"We'd love to immediately include everyone who wants to participate," says a message on the site, "However, we're also trying to ensure that orkut remains a close-knit community."

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