This is the kind of technology advance that gives me the creeps.
But all the encomia that's greeting the announcement of "Gmail" distracts attention from the fact that there's yet a hidden price you will still pay, albeit in the form of a different sort of coin.
The Google contextual advertising system automatically scans for frequently used terms in order to serve up ads. This constitutes a neat technology fix for Internet advertisers, who are always seeking to find ways to make their spots more convincing to Web surfers. For instance, if you e-mail a friend to play tennis this weekend, the system would lock onto the keyword and send you a relevant advertisement from a tennis gear supplier.
Sounds like a mind-blower, if you're the marketing director for Wilson Sporting Goods. Truth be told, however, this is the kind of technology advance that gives me the creeps.
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So, why is Google taking such a risk? In a word: Microsoft.
The folks in Redmond have been slow to get to market with a good search technology. Windows XP has a search function, but Microsoft expects to debut a killer search technology with Longhorn, the code name for the next important version of the Windows operating system. Company executives acknowledge that they're late to market, but they also express confidence in their ability to surpass Google's search technology.
Chest beating? To be sure. But Microsoft, not Google, owns the operating system.
Search is one category; your e-mail is quite another.
Google was not first to market with search, but it was better than the rest and ultimately became No. 1. Microsoft can say the same about Internet browsers, spreadsheets and word processors. The point here: Technology tastes do change.
If it becomes a matter of an arms race, a company with a multibillion-dollar research and development budget can afford to take its time. That's why the big thinkers at Google should go back to the drawing board and correct a big mistake, before it's too late.
Charles Cooper is CNET News.com's executive editor of commentary.
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