Jun. 18, 2004. 06:19 AM
Fledgling Gmail hits the geek spot
Enthusiasts barter to get in now
Pilot offers flight over CN Tower
Some people will do anything to be among the first on their block with a Gmail account.
The new Internet e-mail service from Google Inc. is so popular people are paying to get in on the limited test version now of what will be a free, unlimited service later this year.
Since Google, an Internet search engine specialist, announced April 1 it was expanding into the e-mail business, some people have paid as much as $70 U.S. through the Internet auction site eBay to buy Gmail accounts from people who got them for free from the company.
Others are offering to swap an intriguing mix of products and services in exchange for a Gmail account, from personally re-enacting an episode from Star Trek to a first edition copy of the sci-fi novel Dune.
Toronto's Stephen Thomson, a student pilot and accomplished pianist, made one of the most valuable pitches: A free flight over the CN Tower (or landmark of your choice) plus a musical performance at your wedding (or any other occasion), a combination worth $300, in his estimation.
Within five hours of posting his bid on gmailswap.com, a free swap site not affiliated with Google, Thomson had received a Gmail invite from "an incredibly trusting person" named Lisa. It was unclear when or if Lisa planned to collect from him, Thomson said in a telephone interview yesterday.
But why the frantic rush to join a potentially "buggy" test version of a service that will be easier to access — and presumably smoother to use — after the public version launches later this year?
Thomson said he was motivated by the desire to beat out his buddy, a committed computer user who'd let him in on the cool factor attached to owning an early Gmail account.
Plus, he wanted an e-mail address free of the underscores, backslashes and numbers later adopters get stuck with because the good names have all been taken by then.
Sean Michaels, a 22-year-old university student who created gmailswap.com, says there are two other factors at work. Google has a cult-like following in the tech community, where it's seen as the anti-monopolist, and a lot of devotees want to support its efforts to dethrone Microsoft Corp.'s Hotmail as the leading e-mail service.
"People think Gmail is going to be the e-mail standard of the future, that it's going to become what Hotmail is now, and they want to have a good address, one that shows they got in early," Michaels said.
Plus, Gmail comes with a staggering 1 gigabyte of storage space, more than 100 times what other free e-mail services offer. So much the average user would never have to delete another e-mail in a lifetime.
Michaels created gmailswap.com, where people can trade anything they want for a Gmail account, after noticing that limited access to the test version of the service was creating a black market for the accounts.
As is common in computer industry circles, Google was ironing out the remaining bugs in its new service by inviting a select group of users to test it out.
Michaels wasn't among them but says he received a Gmail invitation from a reader.
Since mid-May, when he created the site, more than 20,000 people have posted requests for Gmail accounts, he says. He doesn't know how many have actually succeeded in getting one.
But he is seeing signs that Google, already the Web's leading search engine company, knows another good thing when it sees one. The company has lately been issuing many more Gmail invitations through existing account holders.
Michaels has seen the impact on the value of Gmail accounts available for sale on eBay, he said. They've dropped to about $10 this week from $70 three weeks ago.