Google Upgrades Gmail

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Google will gradually roll out POP3 (Post Office Protocol) support over the coming weeks to users of its Gmail service, allowing them to use the feature to download e-mail messages from Gmail servers to e-mail applications on devices such as PCs and wireless handhelds.

With POP3 support, a user will be able to transfer server-based Gmail messages to a client-side e-mail application such as Microsoft's Outlook and have the messages stored on a local hard drive, where they will be accessible when the user is offline. Users with wireless devices that have POP3-compliant e-mail clients will be able to download their Gmail messages to personal digital assistants or cell phones, too.

Google is working on adding an antivirus-scanning feature to the Web mail service--possibly by licensing an existing technology--and on developing an HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) interface to make Gmail compatible with browsers that don't support JavaScript. Currently, only JavaScript-enabled browsers can access Gmail, which uses JavaScript extensively.

Best E-Mail Around?

These and other possible enhancements, such as adding further wireless device support through WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) or XHTML (Extensible HTML), are elements of Google's long-term effort to make Gmail--which is still being beta-tested--the most feature-rich Web mail service available, a Google executive said.

"We want to make it the best e-mail service in every single dimension, so you have absolutely no reason to use any other," said Georges Harik, whose title is director of Googlettes, the company's term for new projects.

While POP3 support is an important feature to have, Gmail must also gain calendaring and schedule-management features, which competitors already offer to complement their Web mail services, said Teney Takahashi, an analyst at The Radicati Group. For example, Yahoo's Web mail service offers a calendaring system that integrates with various versions of Microsoft's Outlook, Takahashi said.

Still in Beta Testing

"Right now, Gmail is very good at managing mail but I'd like to see the service extended to other areas of your daily life: Managing your schedule and possibly being able to synchronize that with your desktop client, like Outlook, would be very valuable," Takahashi said.

Google should also consider moving Gmail out of its beta-testing phase and into final release soon, Takahashi said, so that it will be available generally and not exclusively by invitation from the company, as it currently is. Its success in reaching the POP3 support milestone may signal that Google is getting close to the final-release stage, he said.

Google considers POP3 support a must-have for Gmail.

"This is a very important feature that every e-mail system should provide. We're going to make it easy to transition into and out of Gmail, so you can use the best possible e-mail reading interface," Google's Harik said.

"We're making our way down the list of things, so in the end you'll be able to access Gmail on everything," he said.

Though Gmail serves up text ads that appear next to messages' body text, ads will not appear with messages that users download via POP3 to client e-mail applications, a Google spokesperson said.

Antivirus Protection

Also in the works for Gmail is beefed-up antivirus protection. Currently, the service protects users against viruses by blocking messages that have certain files, such as .exe (executable) files, attached to them. But according to Harik, a full-fledged virus-scanning feature is on the horizon for Gmail.

"We block executables and other things that are usually carriers of viruses, so most viruses don't go through, but there are always weird file types. So we're working on getting a full antivirus scanning solution to add to the current list of things that we do. We're likely to possibly license one [from a third party]," Harik said.

Another possibility for Gmail would be support for IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol), a protocol similar to but more sophisticated than POP3, he said.

Google will continue to sharpen Gmail's spam blocking and filtering capabilities, which are based on technology the company develops internally, Harik said. For example, Gmail now detects spam messages sent as phishing scams, and it provides a button for reporting them as such to Google. "We intend to develop the best spam filter in the industry," Harik said.

These efforts show that Google takes the threat of spam and phishing very seriously, Radicati's Takahashi said. "They have been very closed about what technology they're using for antispam filtering, but it seems to be very effective," he said.

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