Google Inc. opened up its Gmail Web mail service to a wider scope of users on Monday by randomly offering, for the first time, accounts to some visitors of the main Google.com page.
Until Monday, to get a Gmail account, a user had to be invited to the service by either Google or an existing Gmail user.
"We just started (on Monday) offering Gmail accounts to a randomly selected sample on Google," said Marissa Mayer, Google's director of consumer Web products. "It's a natural step to leverage the wider user base of Google.com to grow Gmail."
About one in 20 Google.com visitors are getting the Gmail account offer, Mayer said. "Based on the success of this one-in-20 scope, we'll be ramping it up over the next couple of weeks," she said.
Google's move to expand the scope of Gmail users is a noteworthy step, considering that Gmail registrations have been so restricted, an analyst said.
"Gmail has been like a club to which you need to get invited, so this is a step in opening it up to the public," said Su Li Walker, a Yankee Group analyst.
Gmail, a free service, is still in a beta, or test, phase, but there has been much speculation about when it will be launched officially and opened up to Web users in general.
Gmail rocked the Web mail market when it was announced in April 2004 due to its then unprecedented 1G-byte inbox storage. Since then, Web mail providers large and small, including big players Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., have reacted to Gmail by increasing significantly their inbox storage capacity.
Some have said that the longer Google waits to launch Gmail to the general public, the more Gmail loses its initial buzz and momentum. However, others believe Web mail isn't a core service to Google and that, as such, it shouldn't be a priority.
"Google doesn't need e-mail. There are more important products for Google to work on, such as toolbars, local search and advertising programs," said David Card, a Jupiter Research analyst. "E-mail is an interesting opportunity for them to increase user loyalty, but I don't think Google should feel any anxiety in hurrying up a Web mail offer."
Gmail also brought Google, in Mountain View, California, a good amount of controversy due to its inclusion of contextual text ads in the messages based on their content, which prompted privacy advocates to criticize the practice. Google defended itself by saying that the ads are generated automatically with text-scanning technology and without human intervention.
Updated 12:15PM 03/16/05: Added comments from analysts.
This story, "Google expands access to Gmail" was originally published by PCWorld.