Lots of people are getting excited about Microsoft’s Gmail Man video which is now doing the rounds. The video (allegedly only for internal Microsoft use) is a humorous attempt to denigrate Gmail in favor of Microsoft’s Office 365 service.
The point of contention is Gmail’s supposed ‘reading’ of incoming emails in order to customize the ads that appear on the web page next to the message. This is the same contextual ad system that Google uses for any web page on the net that hosts Google ads.
Microsoft tries to make this system into a major privacy concern by calling it ‘reading’ of emails and giving it human form.
There’s even talk about the Gmail man video being released to a mainstream audience. Get a grip, the video is corny and the topic too arcane for most people.
As usual, plenty of people have come down on either side as if there’s no middle ground. You’re either pro-Microsoft or pro-Google. That’s typical of what passes for debate on the web these days. We’d like to give a more balanced view – call us old-fashioned if you like.
It’s not ‘reading’
To say that Google is ‘reading’ your emails is overstatement. A word like ‘scanning’ would be more appropriate to describe the automated process.
Gmail is no more ‘reading’ email than a GPS is ‘driving’ your car or a webcam is ‘watching’ you.
Google says the process is anonymous and you can take their word for that or not.
If you’re concerned about privacy Google Dashboard shows all the information it has linked to a Google account. This is an excellent effort at transparency which has no equivalent for Microsoft/Windows Live customers that we can find.
They All ‘read’ emails
If you take the view that Google is ‘reading’ emails then so are Microsoft’s Hotmail and Office 365.
All three services have spam filtering. Spam filters ‘read’ incoming emails and try to decide if they are unwanted junk. Almost any email host or ISP has spam filtering, whether they admit it or not.
It’s the same type of automated ‘reading’ or ‘scanning’ of an entire email – only the purpose is different and the result less obvious (ie there’s no ads appearing).
Gmail is a good service, certainly the best free email service by a long stretch. Not only is the storage space good (over 7.5GB) but there are many connection methods (IMAP and POP) and you can setup an alias to use Gmail with a non-Gmail address. There’s an offline option in your browser that should return to Google Chrome soon.
Hotmail is also good but lacks many of the external connection options available to Gmail users. 5GB storage is standard with POP3 support now available so you can use any email client to connect with Hotmail.
Both services get revenue from ads on the web pages. Microsoft’s video is highlighting the difference in the way those ads are chosen. Gmail scans the email for keywords and displays ads accordingly. Hotmail also displays ads next to emails, but not based on the email content (other factors like your personal account information, location etc. may be considered).
In both cases you can avoid the online ads entirely by using email software like Outlook or Windows Mail. You can read your Gmail or Hotmail messages in your own software (offline or online). Even online, I suspect many people have learnt to ignore the ads except perhaps when they are inappropriate and, as the video notes, takes keywords out of context.
Office 365 is a subscription service that provides, among other things, corporate quality email hosting. 25GB of storage and a range of connection options make it a powerful option for individuals plus small and medium sized organizations. The email component of Office 365 is essentially an Exchange Server account hosted online.
We like Gmail because it has many open connection features compared to the more narrowly focused Hotmail. Google's self-interest is in connecting their service to as many people as possible, regardless of operating system or office suite.
On the other hand, Office 365 is worth a look for anyone who uses email as an essential communication tool because of the larger storage and better connection options including mobile ‘push’ support. Office 365 has better integration with Office Web Apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote online) than Gmail has with Google Apps (Google’s online office suite). Office 365 suffers, like all Microsoft products, from the overriding corporate need to push Windows and Office regardless of the customers wishes.
Whichever service you use, the host can access your data stored on their computers. They may say that won’t happen and it probably won’t.
As with all online / cloud services – the real question is whether you trust the service provider. Do you trust Microsoft, Google or neither?
Article posted: Wednesday, 03 August 2011
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