Walter Mossberg on Gmail

WSJ’s Mossberg advises Google to drop ads in Gmail and instead offer the service for a small annual fee:

Google’s initial success was built on its breakthrough search technology, which produced more useful search results, much more quickly, than anyone else. Some analysts believe that edge is waning or is gone. I still think Google is the best, but in any case, there’s another secret to Google’s success: honesty.

Of all the major search engines, Google is the only one that’s truly, scrupulously honest. It’s the only one that doesn’t rig its search results in some manner to make money.

Google is risking its reputation for honesty, and for putting the user first, with a new e-mail service it is currently developing, called Gmail. The Gmail service, which I’ve been testing, offers users free e-mail with a massive storage limit of one gigabyte, far more than any competitor provides.

There’s a catch, however. Google intends to run ads down the side of the e-mail messages in Gmail, just like it does in its search results. And, just as on the search pages, the Gmail ads will be triggered by key words in the body of the text — in this case, the text of your e-mail. So if I get an e-mail that refers to, say, a kind of product, I might get an ad for a store that sells that product.

The problem here isn’t confusion between ads and editorial content. It’s that Google is scanning your private e-mail to locate the key words that generate the ads. This seems like an invasion of privacy. Google notes its scanning will be done by computers, and that these machines can’t understand the e-mails and are just looking for specific terms. And the company notes that nearly every e-mail anybody receives is already scanned by computers looking for spam or viruses.

These are logical points, but the proposed system is still a little creepy, and it has the potential for big problems if the content scanning were ever misused by Google. Google might also be forced to use such content scanning in the service of government subpoenas or court orders that might apply to years’ worth of its customers’ e-mails.

So I’m calling on Google to preserve its sterling reputation for honesty and customer focus by offering an alternative form of the new Gmail service. The company should offer Gmail accounts without the ads, and without the scanning, for a modest annual fee. That would put the choice where Google has always placed it: in the hands of its users.

What Mossberg says has tremendous clout in the world of technology. His technology columns are great reading. Wired has a profile of him:

In 1990, when Mossberg’s sons were 8 and 12, he conceived of a new gig that would enable him to wield influence from home: a tech column. He had been captivated by computers and gadgetry for 20 years. As PC sales skyrocketed in the early ’90s, he sensed a historic shift: “I believed that the tech market was about to broaden and democratize, and the column could catch the wave.”

From its launch, Mossberg knew exactly what he wanted. “Personal Technology” would be utterly different from the reviews already out there: “They were by geeks for geeks, filled with jargon, condescending to nontechies, and reverential about the computer and the computer industry,” he says. “I wanted to write for the nontech user and be critical of the industry.”

When it debuted on October 17, 1991, “Personal Technology” was an immediate hit. Mossberg’s voice, amplified by the power of the Journal, resonated like no other.

In addition to writing “Personal Technology” and “Mossberg’s Mailbox,” a Q&A feature, he launched “The Mossberg Solution” and, last year, the D conference.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.