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Businessworld issue dated 19-July

My phone number, what's left of the hair on my head, my seven-digit IQ, my eternal gratitude, a nice and cute kiss, your name on a cloud, the address of any celebrity, amazing music, my mother-in-law...

That, and more, is what Netizens are willing to swap with anyone who'll give them a Gmail account. Take a look at gmailswap.com for a longer list of bizarre offers. I got mine after three lunches with my boss - plus a promise to not bother him the rest of the year. We'll have to see about that one, won't we?

However, in the meantime, I'm now a member of the G Club. Not a small exclusive set but a rapidly growing flood of people who've managed to get themselves 'invited' to the great big Google party where webmail is free and you get a whole 1 gigabyte of space, if you only know what to do with it. The 'Google approach' is, apparently, that you must never have to bother deleting your mail - it can just sit there for all you care. Free email services are a dime a dozen, but Gmail gives you colossal storage, an email search that is based on Google's search technology, and features to beat anything else. On top of that, it's squeaky clean - in Google style. See gmail.google.com, but you can only see and not touch if you're not a member.

Now if Gmail doesn't sound particularly earth-shaking to many of you, that's fine. The fact is that for reasons best known to no one, it's become a craze. It's so coveted, a bunch of people immediately began to try and cash in on it. That is, until Google had to ban them from creating multiple accounts and selling and auctioning them. At first Google only let a select few take up Gmail accounts - by invitation only. But the G Club soon spread to include relatives and friends and friends of friends until a lot of people had Gmail accounts.

Having got Gmail accounts, many of us have done precisely nothing with them. Especially with the 1 gigabyte of space. No one has the bandwidth to keep large files in a Gmail account instead of storing them in their hard disks. For those who don't want to move to webmail at all, dumping existing email clients is quite out of the question, and most unnecessary. But there are also a number of people who've migrated to Gmail, and love its features. The idea of Gmail, say Google technologists, is to take the struggle out of email. You don't have to sit around to sort it. Instead you search for mail, or 'conversations' as they're called in Googlese. A conversation groups an email and its subsequent replies together. Subject lines will contain previews of recent messages in the conversation - and conversations are much easier to follow because of the way responses are ordered and interjected. You can instantly archive the message. You can also search the Web from here.

Gmail also has a neat on-the-fly spell check. Not new in itself, but packaged for much easier use. There are also handy shortcuts to work with your mail. Google says you don't even have to take your hands off the keyboard if you don't want to. You can filter and report spam, label, prioritise or 'star' conversations, and move between conversations with hot keys.

A considerable number of people got hot under the collar over Gmail and its advertising support, and how much that would invade the privacy of Gmail users. The US government quickly reined in that plan. So the advertisements are text and unobtrusive, and users have no real complaints.

The Big G is getting its search and email service rivals (like Yahoo!) worked up. But in the end, it's not about space on servers or a feature or two. It's about a phenomenon that's taken on a life of its own. A colleague of mine, who's the most accomplished snob this side of Google, claimed he would surely die if he didn't have a Gmail account. He got one, which he immediately exhibited on his MSN Messenger, and is now busy turning down requests for an entrée into the G Club.

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