As webmail providers continue their years-long race to increase their inbox storage, some users are cheering them on, while others question whether the dream of unlimited storage has become counterproductive.
Yahoo has pledged that, starting in May, it will offer unlimited storage to Yahoo Mail users, something AOL's AOL Mail has had since September of last year. Meanwhile, Google continually increases Gmail's storage, which now is at over 2.8GB per user.
Until about three years ago, most major webmail providers offered very limited storage, often in the 2MB to 10MB range. This forced users to regularly delete or download their email messages instead of keeping them on the webmail providers' servers. That all changed in April 2004 with Google's introduction of Gmail and its then-unprecedented 1GB inbox, which ignited the storage race.
Depending on who you ask, the importance placed by vendors on inbox size is either justified or exaggerated.
"Large storage is nice but not necessarily a huge consumer priority. When you give consumers a list of features and ask them to prioritise what's most important to them, storage is kind of middle of the road," said Joe Laszlo, a Jupiter Research analyst. Instead, what's vital to the average person is security, namely protection against threats such as fraud, spam, phishing and malware.
However, Teney Takahashi, an analyst with The Radicati Group, thinks that as storage has grown, webmail services are more than tools for exchanging messages because their gigantic inboxes have become repositories of important data and documents.
"People are storing purchase documents, contact information, bank statements, utility bills, and it's very convenient for them to have all this historical data available in their email inbox," Takahashi said.
Users seem equally split. Dan Moore, a Yahoo Mail user since 2002, cares little about unlimited storage announcement because he's not even close to reaching the 2GB limit of his inbox.
"As far as I can tell, I'll never need to delete another email message, but if I did run into a limit, it'd be very easy for me to pull down the messages via the POP interface and store them on a personal hard drive," he said.
Others, like Chaim Danzinger, a freelance video editor, welcome Yahoo's move. Danzinger, who uses Yahoo Mail for personal and work matters, is close to hitting his 2GB ceiling: His inbox is 90 percent full.
"I get many attachments, and they are sometimes quite large, so having extra storage is a great addition," he said. "I like to not have to delete messages which I may need at a later point, be it an attachment, a memo, or anything else."
Still, Jupiter's Laszlo warns that the limitless inbox may be a double-edged sword for some users if it creates a vast and disorganised repository of messages. "Storage by itself doesn't really work. I don't think consumers are conditioned to the idea of searching their email archive yet," Laszlo said. "It doesn't do the consumer any good if they have every email from the past five years but they can't find the one they need."
Webmail providers are motivated to offer vast email storage not only to keep up with competitors, but also because the more data users keeps in their inboxes, the less likely they will be to abandon their accounts, Takahashi said. "It's a way to increase the stickiness of their service," he said. This in turn translates into more ad revenue for them, since webmail services are advertising vehicles, he said. At the same time, the cost of storage is plummeting, so the investment required to provide larger inboxes is a fraction of what it was five years ago.
Laszlo recommends that providers consider increasing the size of messages that can be sent and received, considering that people are sending large video and photo files via email more frequently each day. Currently, most webmail providers cap message sizes at between 10MB and 60MB. However, as pledges of unlimited storage become more common, Laszlo forecasts a lull in webmail improvements.
"The webmail industry goes through cycles where there's a large amount of innovation and things then quiet down for a while, before there's another burst of innovation. We're kind of at the tail end of the innovation spurred by Gmail," said Laszlo.