E-mail is the new database
By Joia Shillingford
BBC News business reporter
"If a friend is excited about a concert and that gives me an idea for a
birthday gift, I will store the info on e-mail," says Georges Harik,
the man in charge of search-engine Google's Gmail service.
Stuart Anderson, Microsoft's Hotmail business manager in the UK, keeps
online shopping receipts in his mailbox in case he has to query
"People are keeping a lot more information in their e-mail accounts for
retrieval at a later date," says Yahoo!
Web-based e-mail services like Hotmail, Yahoo!, Gmail and AOL Mail on
the Web are becoming databases by default as a growing number of people
use them, to store data and photos so they can retrieve them from
The trend has become more pronounced as the services have dramatically
increased their storage capacity in response to upstart Gmail offering
a free service with 1,000 megabytes (Mb) of storage.
"E-mail is a way of interacting not just with others, but also with
yourself, " says Mr Harik, who is director of Googlettes (new Google
services). "You want to remember something, so you send it to your
For all but the very organised, old e-mails will contain phone numbers
that haven't been entered into a diary, names and addresses of
contacts, meeting or customer information, useful statistics or
competitor information and photos of products and people.
The market for web-based e-mail services is still growing. "In the US,
it grew 3% between April and November 2004," said Andreas Gutjahr,
marketing manager, UK & Germany, for Neilsen//NetRatings, a
Nasdaq-listed internet research company.
He says the number of minutes users spend connected is also rising.
But even where there is a small subscription fee, e-mail does not make
much money in itself. The prize is in the number of users - and
therefore advertisers - the providers can lure, not just to their
online mailboxes but also to portals like MSN and search engines like
Google and Yahoo!.
Gmail "will be very profitable for us," says Mr Harik.
But if web e-mail is being used for more than just sending and
receiving messages, how will this affect the market shares of the
One possibility is that Hotmail's market dominance could be affected by
rival services better equipped to search through thousands of e-mails.
Both Yahoo! and Google have had internet search engines as part of
their core business from the start. So they are well placed to offer
efficient e-mail searching.
Gmail was designed with the idea of searching for unstructured, unfiled
information in mind. Mr Harik says: "We've taken away about 70%-80% of
the reason to file things."
However, he believes: "It might still be worth filing e-mails related
to a specific project, where comprehensiveness (finding every single
message on a topic) was important."
"We have a labelling system that enables you to label messages in more
than one way. Also our conversation feature enables you to see all the
messages in an e-mail conversation."
Google will also search users' e-mails for keywords so that it can
place adverts in mailboxes relevant to users' interests. On the one
hand, this may make adverts more useful. On the other - though users'
identities won't be revealed to advertisers - it does raise privacy
Gmail is currently available by invitation only as it is still under
development. But it recently increased the number of new users that
existing customers can invite - from 10 to 50 - suggesting it is
pushing Gmail out to more people.
Yahoo! Mail says it has developed its e-mail searching too. "This can
be done through the new prominent 'Search Mail' and 'Search the Web'
buttons within the e-mail box," said a spokeswoman. "Enhanced searching
tools have become increasingly important as storage limits have
By contrast, the search facilities on Hotmail are quite limited only
allowing searches in the To, From and Subject fields of an e-mail and
not in the text of a message.
Moreover, since Hotmail increased the amount of free storage it offers,
the search facility sometimes won't work at all for users with a lot of
For now, Microsoft - which has a separate search engine it upgraded
this month - is focusing on integrating Hotmail with other Microsoft
applications like instant messaging and blogging. It is not planning to
upgrade its Hotmail search facilities, according to Mr Anderson.
Competition may be taking its toll on Hotmail. "If we look at Europe,
they [Hotmail] actually went down from a monthly audience of 25 million
users in April 2004 to 22 million in November," said
During the same period "Yahoo! increased by 2% from 9.6 million users a
month to nearly 9.8 million," he added.
The number of minutes spent accessing Hotmail in Europe also fell -
from 47 minutes a month in April to 38 minutes last November.
Meanwhile usage of Yahoo! Mail increased by just over 12 minutes a
month to 52 mins.
But Mr Anderson says Hotmail is not planning to give up its dominant
share of the web e-mail market any time soon. It has recently been
encouraging users to sign up for more than one mailbox and has
introduced a series of Hotmail.co.uk mailboxes so people who missed out
on getting the user name they wanted have another chance.
"We've put a huge effort into upgrading our 187m users," says Mr
Anderson. "If we find people are using Hotmail as a dumping ground [for
information] and not being remotely organised, we will develop the
"We are determined to stay ahead."
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