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Email is the new database

Web-based email services like Hotmail, Yahoo!, Gmail and AOL Mail on the Web are becoming databases by default as a growing number of people use them, to store data and photos so they can retrieve them from anywhere.

The trend has become more pronounced as the services have dramatically increased their storage capacity in response to upstart Gmail offering a free service with 1,000 megabytes (Mb) of storage.

"Email is a way of interacting not just with others, but also with yourself, " says Mr Harik, who is director of Googlettes (new Google services). "You want to remember something, so you send it to your mailbox."

For all but the very organised, old emails will contain phone numbers that haven't been entered into a diary, names and addresses of contacts, meeting or customer information, useful statistics or competitor information and photos of products and people.

But if web email is being used for more than just sending and receiving messages, how will this affect the market shares of the different providers?

One possibility is that Hotmail's market dominance could be affected by rival services better equipped to search through thousands of emails.

Both Yahoo! and Google have had Internet search engines as part of their core business from the start. So they are well placed to offer efficient email searching.

Gmail was designed with the idea of searching for unstructured, unfiled information in mind. Mr Harik says: "We've taken away about 70%-80% of the reason to file things." However, he believes: "It might still be worth filing emails related to a specific project, where comprehensiveness (finding every single message on a topic) was important."

"We have a labelling system that enables you to label messages in more than one way. Also our conversation feature enables you to see all the messages in an email conversation."

Google will also search users' emails for keywords so that it can place adverts in mailboxes relevant to users' interests. On the one hand, this may make adverts more useful. On the other - though users' identities won't be revealed to advertisers - it does raise privacy concerns.

Gmail is currently available by invitation only as it is still under development. But it recently increased the number of new users that existing customers can invite - from 10 to 50 - suggesting it is pushing Gmail out to more people.

Yahoo! Mail says it has developed its email searching too. "This can be done through the new prominent 'Search Mail' and 'Search the Web' buttons within the email box," said a spokeswoman. "Enhanced searching tools have become increasingly important as storage limits have increased."

By contrast, the search facilities on Hotmail are quite limited only allowing searches in the To, From and Subject fields of an email and not in the text of a message.

Moreover, since Hotmail increased the amount of free storage it offers, the search facility sometimes won't work at all for users with a lot of emails.

For now, Microsoft - which has a separate search engine it upgraded this month - is focusing on integrating Hotmail with other Microsoft applications like instant messaging and blogging. It is not planning to upgrade its Hotmail search facilities, according to Stuart Anderson, Microsoft’s Hotmail business manager in the UK.

Competition may be taking its toll on Hotmail. "If we look at Europe, they [Hotmail] actually went down from a monthly audience of 25 million users in April 2004 to 22 million in November," said Neilsen/NetRatings.

During the same period "Yahoo! increased by 2% from 9.6 million users a month to nearly 9.8 million," he added.

The number of minutes spent accessing Hotmail in Europe also fell - from 47 minutes a month in April to 38 minutes last November.

Meanwhile usage of Yahoo! Mail increased by just over 12 minutes a month to 52 mins.

But Mr Anderson says Hotmail is not planning to give up its dominant share of the web email market any time soon. It has recently been encouraging users to sign up for more than one mailbox and has introduced a series of mailboxes so people who missed out on getting the user name they wanted have another chance.

"We've put a huge effort into upgrading our 187m users," says Mr Anderson. "If we find people are using Hotmail as a dumping ground [for information] and not being remotely organised, we will develop the product.

"We are determined to stay ahead."

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