If you want a Gmail account, the new e-mail service from Google Inc., you'd better be ready to pony up or at least have something to offer -- some are willing to swap kung-fu lessons, medical advice or, say, an autographed picture of a master yodeler.
Years after the rush to snatch up prime "dot-com" addresses, the latest Internet land-grab is on. This one started in April, when Google surprised the Web-connected world by announcing it is getting into the free e-mail business, with a service it calls Gmail.
For something that will eventually cost nothing -- Google has not announced when the service will be available to the public -- people are willing to trade all sorts of things for the right to snag a choice e-mail identity. At one Web site that connects the Gmail haves with the have-nots, a man is offering to lend his car for a week to anyone who can connect him with an account. On eBay, that trusty barometer for what things are really worth at any moment, accounts have topped $70.
Tech companies frequently roll out new products with limited releases of test or "beta" versions to identify and fix glitches before a major release; Google is in such a test stage with Gmail. Early e-mail invitations to try the service were extended to digerati, journalists and friends of Google employees. New account holders occasionally get to invite their own friends to the service, though usually in limited numbers.
Some think this looks more like a sly promotional effort by the popular search engine company than a bug test, however.
"It is a very savvy marketing plan to build up interest," said Andy Beal, vice president of Websourced Inc., a search engine marketing firm.
By controlling the influx of new users and building up anticipation for the service, Beal figures Google is stacking the odds to help make sure people will sign up for the service if they receive one of the coveted invitations. Newcomers in the e-mail arena typically have a tough time attracting new users, since that requires getting people to switch from accounts they're used to.
Beal said he's used his own Gmail account only once so far. "I keep going back over to my Yahoo account, because I know how it works and it's too much of a pain to switch."
'Newness for its own sake'
What's so special about Google? Where competitors Hotmail and Yahoo offer a few megabytes of online storage with their e-mail service, Google's Gmail service offers a gigabyte of e-mail space. Account holders can also use Google's search technology to comb through their e-mail files to track down half-forgotten conversations.
There are simpler reasons for Gmail's appeal, too.
"The reason I initially wanted the account was the same reason I want almost any new gadget that comes out," said Jason White, a Minneapolis resident, in a message from his Gmail account. "Just newness for its own sake."
White got his account for the price of a phone call. At Gmailswap.com, a Web site for Gmail account-seekers, White posted a request, saying that if he got one he would call his mom and tell her he loved her. In his posting, White promised possible benefactors that his gesture "will help make this world a better place."
"I did call my mom right after I got the offer," said White. "We didn't talk much about Gmail, though."
Gmailswap.com has been online since Monday, and the site has been deluged with thousands of posts from Gmail-seekers. Sean Michaels, a recent college graduate who runs the site, said it is "a response to the ugly capitalism of the eBay swaps." He is aware of a few dozen success stories so far, though it's hard for him to keep track of them all.
"I've been pretty astonished at the number of requests," he said. "But I've also been surprised at the number of people who recognize the spirit of what I'm trying to do."
Colin Summers, a Gmail user in Santa Monica, Calif., is one of the digital philanthropists who gave away some of his spare Gmail invitations at the site. Summers unloaded some of his extra invitations there because he "liked the very simple idea, and the vibe of the people," he said in an e-mail from his Gmail account.
Few worried about privacy
People with a few extra invitations have a lot to choose from, judging from offers on the Web site: A bottle of Jameson whiskey, a picture of some guy's girlfriend naked or a collection of heavy-metal band Iron Maiden records occupy one end of the spectrum; less tangible goods such as "eternal salvation" or "goodwill and karma" are on the other.
Summers, however, told the people he favored with accounts to keep their offerings, partly figuring that he would be violating the terms of service that Gmail users agree to if he profited from his extra invitations.
That's not how everyone interprets Google's rules. Silicon Valley software developer Case Larson got his Gmail account through an acquaintance at Google and has been auctioning off spare accounts online for up to $70 apiece. Though he admits he finds the ethics of selling free accounts a little sticky, he doesn't believe he's violating the terms-of-use agreement. A spokesman for Google declined comment yesterday.
Google's Gmail service has generated some controversy among privacy activists for the way its technology serves up text ads to users based on the content of their messages.
None of the Gmail account holders or would-be account holders contacted for this article expressed concerns along these lines.
"The privacy thing doesn't bother me, because it's a computer scanning your e-mail, not a person," said Clarksville resident Ryan Vo in an e-mail. "I just want one now because I can get a good username, not some firstname.lastname@example.org."
Vo offered "a Maryland cicada" for a Gmail account at Gmailswap.com.
He hasn't gotten an offer yet.