On Wednesday, the company began providing free POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3) access on Gmail accounts. The rollout is expected to reach all users over the next two weeks, said George Harik, director of Googlettes, the name of the Google group overseeing its startup services.
"This [access] is an important part of e-mail because of all the things not enabled by Web-based e-mail," Harik said.
POP3 access, for example, allows users to read Gmail messages while they are offline and on mobile devices that support the standard, Harik said.
POP3 is a standard protocol for receiving e-mail and communicating between an e-mail server and client. Most major e-mail clients, such as Microsoft Outlook, support the standard, as do competing Web-based e-mail services such as Yahoo Inc.s mail.
Once activated, Gmails POP3 support retains e-mail on Gmail servers by default while downloading copies to another client. But users also can choose to completely move messages off the Gmail service, Harik said.
Googles decisions to offer POP3 access for free could become another competitive strike for Gmail. When Google released Gmail in April with a gigabyte of free storage, it unleashed a storage race among Web-based e-mail providers. Top competitors Yahoo and Microsoft Corp.s MSN division have since increased the storage levels for their services.
Similarly, while POP3 access is available from other e-mail services, it rarely is free. Yahoo provides POP3 access as part of its paid, premium mail service.
In September, MSN Hotmail ditched its free access to e-mail through the Outlook and Outlook Express clients. Hotmail supports a different standard, WebDAV (World Wide Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning), for client-based access. Citing spam abuse, MSN officials decided to switch WebDAV support from a free option to one available only as part of a subscription plan.
Gmail remains in an invite-only beta test, and Harik declined to say when it would become generally available or how many users have signed up so far. The POP3 support follows Googles introduction a few weeks ago of forwarding features for Gmail.
Gmail has gained attention for placing sponsored-link ads alongside e-mail, but those ads will not be included in POP3 messages.
"We think our interface is pretty compelling and that most times when users are connected [to the Internet] they will want to use it," Harik said. "This is more an expansion of [Gmail] use."