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Google targets ISPs: is there a dark side?

Pretty much every Internet service provider on the planet offers email as part of their package, but that doesn't mean they do a particularly good job of it.

OK, the majority don't suffer embarrassing outages like Australian ISP BigPond's infamous email meltdown in October 2003 , but limited download speeds, variable quality web mail interfaces, tiny online storage quotas and the tie-in effect of choosing an email address linked to a specific provider mean that using an ISP-provided email service often winds up looking like a pretty poor choice.

That's especially the case with providers that only offer a limited number of email accounts for each customer (such as the single inboxes offered by BigPond or Unwired, for example, on their cheapest plans).

Search giant Google is hoping to change that attitude with the latest expansion to its Google Apps software platform, designed specifically to attract ISPs and other Internet businesses.

In a characteristically Google-esque move, Google announced the new program in a posting on its blog. "This new version, which we're calling the Partner Edition, makes it easy for large and small service providers to offer your subscribers the latest versions of powerful tools, like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs & Spreadsheets, without having to worry about hosting, updating, or maintaining any of the services yourself," product manager Hunter Middleton wrote.

The slick Gmail interface and multi-gigabyte inbox limit might seem might good selling points for an ISP-branded Gmail service, but Google's fundamental selling point is a single one: laziness. "You can quit spending your resources and time on applications like webmail -- and leave the work to our busy bees at the Googleplex," Middleton wrote.

Google may well be on the money here -- APC's past discussions with ISPs has indicated that running the email system for customers and dealing with spam while offering an acceptable amount of reliability is a major cost and headache for companies that, frankly, would prefer to focus on the 'tubes'.

However, despite that, there's a few elements of Google's new offering that might give ISPs (and their customers) pause for thought.

Unlike the individually accessible Google Apps services, which are primarily supported through advertising, ISPs will have to pay for the service. Google is being rather coy about the pricing, merely inviting ISPs and other interested parties to apply and learn more, but does suggest in its product information page that the service will be offered "affordably".

Secondly, while Google talks up the potential for ISPs to customise the service, that might not always be good for end users.

For instance, a key selling point of Partner edition is the ability to "offer subscribers the latest Google applications on your domain". If a Gmail account is tied to ispname.com.au, it suddenly becomes a lot less appealing, because, like any other ISP email address, changing ISP means having to tell everyone you know about your new email address.

Google hasn't indicated yet whether customers of this ISP-sponsored Gmail will be able to easily port their mail over to a new Gmail address, either.

Similarly, the promised storage volume is "up to 10GB". If Google offers ISPs the choice of how much storage space to offer customers (and if less space costs an ISP less dollars) then the chances are that ISPs will offer a minimal amount.

For Australian ISPs, there's also the question of whether Google will consider them worth their time, or offer sufficient differentiations. Google's application form categorises ISPs into five size groups, with the smallest covering up to 200,000 customers -- a number that would cover all but Australia's very largest ISPs. Size, in this case, might not be everything.