After the actual Google search engine, Gmail was probably the first Google app I started using. I'd had it to the teeth with my Bell Sympatico internet connection, and was shopping around for a new ISP. That meant my e-mail account would be going away. I didn't really want to use Hotmail because I used to train people on how to do tech support for it (along with sausage and journalism, the workings widely-deployed web apps should not be seen by the weak-stomached).

At the time, too, maximum attachment sizes and maximum mailbox sizes were pretty punitive for web-based e-mail. Besides that, some web mail clients were trying to police their users by not allowing files with certain extensions through. Since I'd been using PKZip since DOS was the norm on PCs and tended to write some of those "forbidden" files myself (like .JS files), I was pretty annoyed at just about everyone offering web e-mail.

I begged an invitation to Gmail off the person that told me about sometime in the summer of 2004 (my absolute earliest e-mails are long gone, and not terribly missed). What made me sign up was:
  • their maximum on-line mailbox size was (and still is) bigger than most other web-based e-mail clients
  • they had keyboard shortcuts way before anyone else
  • you can use the Google search tool to hack through your inbox and find messages
  • even though the infamous "keyword targeted ads" are there, the interface is much less flashy and therefore tends to load more quickly than the competition's
  • the ads themselves are not entirely bad — I usually get ones for, which I read anyhow.
I don't know if the numbers would back me up on this, but I suspect Gmail is also Google's most popular tool (after the search engine). It seems like a lot of people have accounts, even if they're not primary accounts. That's easy to manage, because Google lets you grab mail from other accounts and will even label it for you. You can even reply back using Gmail, but say it's from the other account. I manage three accounts from one Gmail address, and it works great.
    Gmail was also the first web mail app (that I know of) that encouraged you not to file away things in folders. Instead, you just kept everything in your inbox and then searched through it when you needed something. When Gmail came on the scene, this was weird, and outright frowned upon at the offices I worked at. Now it's the norm, and other e-mail apps have had to improve their search capabilities to keep up.

    Gmail's account capacity is now somewhere in the neighbourhood of 7.5 GB (they keep increasing the inbox size gradually), they've recently added a task list feature, and the contacts list has improved a lot from the early days. They also have integrated chat now. This is different from the ill-fated Buzz, which seems to have been some sort of Twitter competitor and that no-one I know ever took too seriously. They don't seem to have a lot of downtime, and, although I noticed that my on-line inbox only goes back to 2005 now, they don't seem to lose accounts a lot. From what I have heard, when they do, it's game over, but that's just another reason why you shouldn't trust cloud computing and should always have a backup mailbox.

    Like anything else that's free, if you think you could use it, you should check it out.