Is This the Beginning of the End For Web Mail?

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The number of people accessing Web-based e-mail sites such as Hotmail and Gmail is in decline, according to new research from ComScore. Comparing November 2010 to 2009, the research firm found six percent fewer visitors arrived at webmail sites. Not only that but those who visited spent just under 10 percent less time there compared to previous years.

Could the Web mail cloud be dissipating as quickly as it formed? Perhaps not, but the signs are not good for those who've been enjoying the high-quality free services offered by corporates such as Google and Microsoft. As usage patterns change, the tech giants are going to try harder and harder to squeeze money out of us.

The visitor drop was even steeper for teenage users between 12 and 17 years old; 24 percent fewer of them visited in November 2010 compared with the same time the previous year. Their engagement figure--the amount of time spent on the site measured in minutes and pages visited--dropped by half.

Teens give a clue as to what might be partially to blame: Messaging services built into social networking sites. Teens spend so long on Facebook that it becomes an "Internet shell" and they rarely wander beyond its walls. Switching to a different site just to send a message is cumbersome. Facebook's mail service isn't perfect but it's good enough for light use (although things are set to improve).

For groups usually excluded from social networking because of their age, Web e-mail showed the kind of growth that we might otherwise have expected: Of those aged over age 55, there was a rise of 16 percent in terms of visitors compared with 2009. Of those aged over 65, there was an 8 percent rise.

The biggest threat comes from mobile devices, however. The survey recorded 36 percent growth in mobile device e-mail access. However, it isn't clear how the e-mail is being delivered--whether push services or simple POP3 was in use, for example, or even if the mobile sites for Web mail services were being utilized.

However, the executive summary is this: Things are changing in the world of e-mail, and we could be in for the biggest shakeup since the launch of Web mail itself, back in 1996 when Hotmail came online. The decline in visitors to Web-based e-mail sites won't have gone unnoticed.

Users may not come out of it well. At the moment we get an astonishing amount for nothing. Gmail offers ad-free messages, POP3/IMAP access so e-mail can be grabbed via any e-mail client, insane amounts of storage, plus various bells and whistles that make using it a dream.

As users, all that's required of us is to gaze incidentally at ads here and there, and sometimes click them if we find them interesting. Whether Gmail (or Hotmail for that matter) actually makes any money this way is a moot point. We're still in the hazy, crazy days of the Internet's teenage years; don't kill the buzz by asking questions!

Yet it's important at least to try and make money, which is why there are ads. However, if people aren't seeing them because they're using every other method of grabbing mail rather than the Website, then this might make somebody at the increasingly bureaucratic Google start to panic.

People who panic do silly things, and we can imagine what could happen: Ads in messages, limitations on the number messages downloaded via POP3/IMAP, "upgrade" fees for additional functionality, and so on. Microsoft would be doing that kind of thing right now with Hotmail if it wasn't for Google providing competition.

The big problem looming on the horizon is that mobile technology is very resistant to advertising.

A small screen size makes it unforgivable to slip a banner in here or there, for example. Pop-up ads are impossible. The only route would be intrusive ads that users tend to hate--gateway ads that have to be cleared before the user progresses to the content, for example, or adding advertising to content without the user's permission.

No doubt Facebook will be giggling with glee at such attempts, having tied its own forthcoming messaging service into a larger product that offers all kinds of additional value points and already has an unobtrusive ad system in place. Indeed, as the likes of Google Wave have proven, the way forward may be to extend e-mail beyond mere messages. Yet Google has had little success.

ComScore is quick to point out in its survey that e-mail is still one of the most popular online services, reaching 70 percent of the US population each month. There's certainly an undying thirst out there for e-mail, but how the IT giants satiate our desires is set to change as time goes on.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

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