Gmail raises limit to 4 GB (and counting), but you might hit it sooner

When Google introduced it’s free email service it offered 1 GB of space, much more than the competition at the time. Later the limit was doubled to 2 GB. It has been increasing on a counter since: As you watched you could see the KB figure of the limit steadily increase.

Two GB for email will last forever, right? Not quite. As a longtime Gmail user I first managed to hit the ceiling on one account less than two months ago, at 2.9 GB and therein lies a lesson, because I managed to hit the limit twice, for different reasons.

I was accessing the account in question via POP3. Mails were arriving in large numbers and I was picking them up from a mail client (Outlook Express via my spam filter), which explicitly deletes them from the mail server after pickup. Only my local hard disk should keep a copy. Nevertheless after some months all 2.9 GB on the account were in use and mails started getting rejected for lack of space.

I found I foolishly had opted to leave mails in the Gmail account even when the mail client had requested the mails to be deleted the from the server via POP3. Mails are either kept, archived or deleted. Gmail gives you that flexibility, but it means you can run out of space when you shouldn’t.

After mails started bouncing I went in and reconfigured the account to have any mails deleted that had been picked up via POP3. To create a safety margin I also went in and deleted several tens of megabytes of the oldest emails and emptied the trash, so the files were permanently deleted.

Soon after that mails bounced again. Here is what I found: When Gmail is configured to actually delete mails when a POP3 delete request arrives, it will not free up the space. It only moves the mail to its trash folder. It will not purge deleted emails from the trash if it runs out of space. Unless you go in manually, all these mails will stay around for another 30 days.

What this means in practice is that you need to leave enough space in your Gmail account for 30 days worth of email traffic or you’ll run out of space. Alternatively you periodically need to go in manually and tell Gmail to discard everything in the trash folder. If your monthly mail volume exceeds the Gmail mailbox limit you have no alternative but to manually empty the trash every couple of days.

The situation has eased a little bit because Gmail recently made more storage available, letting the limit count up rapidly to 4 GB and beyond, instead of the previous 2.9 GB. Paying customers get even more storage space.

Google’s intention with giving users more space is clear: They want their customers to keep files online, where they can be searched and edited with Google’s server-hosted online tools, rather than the desktop applications such as Microsoft Office that have been Microsoft’s cash cow until now. Google makes money through online ads, so it wants eyeballs on server-based applications such as Gmail which it controls.

I am not sure how well that strategy will work in the end. Personally I prefer to have all my data on a hard disk in my office or home, duplicated onto USB hard disks for security. I do not trust any company to always give me access when I need to. That’s why I use POP3 and not IMAP for email. If the server goes down I still have my data.

If I need to get access to my files while I’m away from home I will access my machines using remote access tools. Some people may feel like me, others like the idea of files that can be accessed from any PC via a website.

Irrespective of the success of server based file storage, even on the desktop there are now good alternatives to Microsoft Office, such as OpenOffice 2.3 which I have started using. I can view and edit just about any Microsoft proprietary data file without paying hundreds of dollars.

Between server-based tools offered by Google and others, full featured free Office competitors and increasing acceptance of Ubuntu and other Linux versions on the desktop and last but not least Microsoft’s toad called Vista that it hoped its user base would swallow eagerly, I can see trouble brewing for the monopolist in Redmont.

Update (2007-10-26):
A table in the source code of Gmail’s HTML pages reveals their planned schedule for increasing space. After reaching 4321 MB by October 23, the limit will steadily rise to reach 6283 MB by January 4, 2008. From there onwards the pace will slow down again, rising only about 1 GB per year. Of course they can revise this schedule any time, so your mileage may vary 😉

// Estimates of nanite storage generation over time.
var CP = [
[ 1175414400000, 2835 ],
[ 1192176000000, 2912 ],
[ 1193122800000, 4321 ],
[ 1199433600000, 6283 ],
[ 2147328000000, 43008 ],