For someone like Gordon Gould, a self-described e-mail packrat who never seems to trash anything that falls into his inbox, the idea of e-mail with a seemingly infinite amount of storage was a dream come true.
That's what Google was pitching when it started offering its free Gmail service in 2004. Archive and search, the company said. Don't delete. In fact, in the earliest versions of Gmail, there was no delete button.
Today, there is. And Gould, chief executive of a California Web company called ThisNext, was forced to use it earlier this year when his mailbox was 99 percent full. Sending and receiving e-mails took a long time and eventually threatened to halt.
"I've had to go through six months' worth of e-mail and just blow away large attachments," Gould said. "It was painful more than anything else. I had to make a psychological decision to just give up e-mails that were 18 months old."
What's a keeper
E-mails are no longer small text files of quick notes to friends or colleagues. They often include large, space-hungry attachments -- such as digital video clips and photos, PowerPoint presentations and cutesy icons, all of which nibble away at inbox capacity. With all that extra stuff, people like Gould, who had thought of their e-mail accounts like a box of memorabilia stowed away in the attic, are now having to rummage through and select what's a keeper.
When it was released, Google's 1 gigabyte inbox, the largest among Web-mail providers at the time, put it a notch ahead of Yahoo Mail and Microsoft's Hotmail, its biggest competitors in the free Web-based e-mail business. But this month, Yahoo is taking the lead by rolling out unlimited e-mail storage for all of its users. Microsoft, which has renamed Hotmail to Windows Live Hotmail, is offering 2 gigabytes of storage for its free Web-mail service -- about enough to store about 650 pictures -- and double that for those willing to pay $20 a year for a premium service. AOL launched a free e-mail service last fall offering 5 gigabytes of storage.
Google, which caps its mailboxes at about 2.8 gigabytes, said it will soon offer additional e-mail storage for a price but would not provide details or timing for that add-on service. This month, the company increased the size of attachments that can be sent and received via Gmail to 20 megabytes from 10 megabytes.
Most Gmail users aren't anywhere near the storage limit and the company plans to eventually increase its mailbox capacity limits beyond that, Gmail product manager Keith Coleman said.
The priority for Gmail, Coleman said, is to offer more freedom with the mailbox by allowing users to do more, such as auto-forward messages or read them through programs such as Outlook.
"Our focus is on making mail as useful as possible to as many people as possible," Coleman said. "We care a lot about those very active users, but generally our focus is on doing as many things as we can to make it better, keeping the product extremely fast, keeping spam out of inboxes."
'Digital archive around their lives'
Few Yahoo Mail users are close to filling their inboxes, and Yahoo would like to free its users from thinking about deleting old files, said John Kremer, vice president of Yahoo Mail.
"They want mail to become a digital archive around their lives. If we force them to manage that storage, it really puts a strain on them," he said.
Over time, that strain becomes more than an inconvenience, especially for businesses that enjoy Google's enhanced mail service for not only the Web but also cellphones, said David Ferris, president and senior analyst with Ferris Research in San Francisco.
"For businesses, there are compliance issues," he said. "Five years ago, businesses would say that electronic documents could be deleted after 30 or 60 days. . . . Today, the default is to keep everything forever."
Yahoo, Ferris said, is on the right path by marketing its mail as having unlimited storage. The costs of storage have come down, and eliminating the storage meter puts users' minds at ease and allows them the freedom to do as they please with their inboxes, he said.
Stewart Rutledge used Gmail for all of his e-mail accounts while attending law school at the University of Mississippi last year and writing the occasional blog entry for Lifehacker.
It was on that site that he shared his story about reaching 99 percent capacity, then struggling to get more space by trying to contact Google. Eventually, he was forced to start deleting, but Google's search tools helped him come up with formulas to quickly weed out the e-mails with the largest attachments.
"I never cleaned out my inbox. I just kept everything because I didn't feel like cleaning," he said. "A lot of people might say I'm lazy or call me a storage hog, but I'm not concerned about that. I just didn't feel like doing it."