Correction to This Article
The Fast Forward column in the Jan. 7 Business section misstated the storage quota of Microsoft's Live Mail service. Users can keep up to 2 gigabytes of e-mail on the service.

Web-Mail Tests Without End

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, January 7, 2007

How is 2007 just like 2006 -- and 2005? Google's Gmail site is still in beta, as is Microsoft's Live Mail and the new version of Yahoo Mail.

Gmail ( http://gmail.com) has now spent 33 months in this testing phase, while Yahoo Mail ( http://mail.yahoo.com) and the Hotmail successor Live Mail ( http://mail.live.com) have lasted about 16 and 14 months, respectively.

Apparently, it now takes more time to finish developing a Web site than a Web browser -- or even an entire operating system. (Not even Windows Vista has undergone such a lengthy public audition.)

The fact that these three companies don't consider their free Web-mail sites housebroken doesn't mean that they don't want you to use them. They've got ads to sell. And time you spend reading and writing e-mail at these sites translates into money they can make off your activity.

The beta-testing status of these sites means each company's sales pitch often amounts to "trust us": Trust us that we'll add new features, fix the things that you dislike and catch up to whatever options our competitors already provide.

The developers of these Web-mail sites may have infinite patience, but you shouldn't. Choose a Web-mail site based on how it works today, not on how they say it'll work tomorrow, next month, next year or whenever they finally abandon the b-word.

By that standard, your choice should be easy: Use Gmail.

Google's Web-mail has the cleanest interface --dominated either by a simple vertical list of messages or the message you're reading or writing-- and loads the quickest. In comparison, Yahoo suffers a distracting delay after you log in, then wastes so much of the screen with a vertical ad banner that you must scroll sideways to read most messages; Live Mail works faster but has an equally inefficient layout that also requires frequent side-to-side scrolling.

Gmail is smarter about organizing messages, too. It groups related replies into "conversations" and lets you sort old e-mail by "tagging" it by topic -- in effect, filing it in two or more places at once. It takes a little getting used to, but this tagging system works much better for large volumes of mail than the conventional folders Yahoo and Live Mail provide.

Gmail's absurdly high quota -- you can squirrel away almost three gigabytes' worth of mail, compared to one each for Live Mail and Yahoo -- often draws attention. But unless you're a compulsive hoarder, you'll may never approach any service's storage limits.

If a fellow Gmail user is logged on at the same time as you, Gmail lets you sidestep the lag of e-mail altogether and open an instant-messaging chat session in the same browser window. (Yahoo and Microsoft say they will add similar features to their Web-mail services later on.)

Gmail is also the most compatible service around: If you use any modern browser -- Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera -- you get the same Gmail. Yahoo forces users of Safari and Opera to stick with its old interface.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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