Tuesday, October 11, 2005

GMail Faces Stiff Competition Ahead

Google released GMail in April 2004 at a time when web based mail products from Yahoo and Microsoft were in the end-of-life phase. As a result, word about GMail quickly spread in the internet community and as of today GMail has some 5 million registered users. Most users liked GMail because of one or more of the following features:
  1. Smoother and faster AJAX based interface
  2. No banner ads and clutter free design
  3. 2G space and 10M attachments
  4. More efficient search
  5. Nice WYISWIG editor
  6. Tag/Labels are like virtual folders that let users have the same mail organized in multiple folders
  7. Better spam filtering?
All this was really cool when GMail came. But, how hard is it to duplicate these features and even surpass them? I mean there is nothing extraordinary about the feature-set. One good thing GMail did was to give a wake up call to its main competitors in the search space: Yahoo and Microsoft.

Sometime last year Yahoo acquired Oddpost. Oddpost had a really cool mail app looking for users and Yahoo Mail was a not so cool mail app with lots of users. Yahoo and Oddpost delivered their first baby in the form of Yahoo Mail Beta. Going by screenshots and the rave reviews it is receiving from tech journals and blogosphere, I am getting a feeling that Yahoo Mail has surpassed GMail. You can sign up to be an early adopter. I have signed up and waiting. Yahoo should get more people onboard quickly before the next cool thing arrives.

Today, Microsoft made official announcements about Kahuna and there has been lot of excitement around it. Here is a nice review of Kahuna. When I first saw the video of Omar Sahine and team presenting Kahuna, I was thriled. These guys are creating something that will touch the lifes of millions and yet they are so humble and down to earth. But, the screenshots in the review were a little disappointing. The presence of huge banner ads was a letdown. Also I think MS should do away with the blue and white look and create something brand new like it did in start.com. The interface looks a bit cramped compared to Yahoo's offering. Nevertheless, this is a big step from Microsoft and I believe it will stop Hotmail users from deserting their 9 year old accounts. You can sign up to be beta tester.

Of course, the market also has niche products like Flash based goowy. Goowy provides a mind blowing interface but it is based on flash, which lot of people don't trust much because it is proprietory nature.

Remember how in the late 90s almost everyone who had a website, started offering a web based mail. You might think that the technical advancements done by Gmail, Kahuna, and Yahoo Mail will put the little sites out of business. Well, say hello to Zimbra. Zimbra is a open-source e-mail platform complete with a back-end mail server and highly interactive AJAX front-end. It was one of the darlings of the recently concluded Web 2.0 conference. With Zimbra, almost anyone can create or extend his own kick-ass web mail system.

It is clear that Gmail made a terrible mistake by having a invite-only scheme for its e-mail. The primary reason they gave for this is that they wanted to prevent spammers from signing up and they didn't want uncontrolled expansion. Well, one might wonder if the best way to prevent spam is to stop people fromm signing using your product. I think GMail didn't feel comfortable to sign up a lot of people and give then 2G space each. It is a bit unethical to tout 2G space and not prevent users from signing up at the same time. Another theory is that it just Google's arrogance - "Our mail is so good that you have to beg to use it". GMail's reaction to Yahoo's release was to introduce a clumsy sign-up mechanism involving your cell-phone. I think GMail should simply admit it's mistake and allow anyone to sign-up the way it has been traditionally done by other email providers.

In summary, lot of exciting new email applications are around the corner. 2006 will bring a lot of coolness in the web and I can't be more excited about it.


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