Is Yahoo Mail locking in users with unlimited storage?

Webmail providers continue to increase inbox storage, but it won't be long until users begin to question whether the dream of unlimited storage has become counterproductive.

Yahoo has pledged that, from May, it'll offer unlimited storage to Yahoo Mail users – something AOL Mail has had since September 2006. Google Mail currently allows each user over 2.8GB.

Only three years ago, most webmail providers offered limited storage in the 2MB-to-10MB range. This all changed in April 2004 with Google Mail's unprecedented 1GB inbox. But the importance webmail providers place on storage may be misplaced - it just depends on who you ask.

"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 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, isn't even close to reaching the 2GB limit of his inbox.

"But if I did run into a limit, it'd be very easy for me to pull down the messages and store them on a hard drive," he said.

Others, such as Chaim Danzinger, a freelance video editor, welcome Yahoo's move. Danzinger uses Yahoo Mail for work, and 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."

Message hoarders

Laszlo warns that the limitless inbox may be a double-edged sword if it creates a 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.

Webmail providers are motivated to offer vast email storage not only to keep up with competitors, but because users are less likely to abandon their accounts if they store a lot of data. This, in turn, translates into more ad revenue for them. And as the cost of storage is plummeting, the investment required is far more affordable.

Laszlo recommends that providers consider increasing the size of messages that can be sent and received, since 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. "We're at the tail end of the innovation spurred by Gmail," he said.

The full version of this article appears in the July 07 issue of PC Advisor, on sale now.