Watch for the Googly

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Many people who work in computing find the fact that millions of people continue to use Microsoft's ubiquitous email service Hotmail a constant source of frustration and surprise.

Not only does it seem particularly prone to spam, but it has limited storage capacity and Microsoft has been accused in the past of passing email details onto other companies.

However Microsoft's near monopoly almost guarantees people will use its email service, and if they don't Microsoft makes it hard for them. The only type of web email that Windows' built-in email reader Outlook Express can automatically configure is - you guessed it, Hotmail.

All this means that the computer industry got very excited that the internet's most successful search engine, Google, would soon release an online email service, Gmail. Google plans a number of features not seen before in online email services. But the biggest attraction is plans for huge online storage capacity - far more than is offered by Hotmail or even its closest rival, Yahoo!

Gmail could well offer relief to millions of Hotmail users fed up with overflowing in-boxes and spam. But Google isn't doing this out of charity - rather it plans something completely new, but something that will be recognisable to anyone who has seen Minority Report or other Philip K Dick inspired science fiction-personalised advertisements.

Software will scan your email for particular words and insert text advertisements at the end of the email based on the contents. The idea is that if you compose an email about your favourite films, adverts might be inserted offering you discounted DVDs.

These plans have caused outrage among privacy watchdogs. Already it looks as though Germany's privacy laws might outlaw such activity, and the online magazine Register has reported Privacy International filing a complaint with the British government.

A bigger concern is that it will be possible for email information to be matched up with searches made using the Google search engine. Google will even retain your emails after you close your account. Who knows what will happen to that information one day, but it's not something any of us should be happy with.