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Gmail Becomes More Widely Available

Google Inc.'s e-mail service is almost ready to accept all comers, nearly three years after the online search leader shook up the Internet by offering users an unprecedented amount of free storage and displaying ads based on the content of the correspondence.

Effective Wednesday, the Mountain View-based company removed the invitation-only restrictions on its Gmail service in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Brazil. Google opened up the service last year in several other parts of the world, including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Egypt.

Invitations to open a Gmail account are still required in North America, Asia and most parts of the South America, but Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne said those restrictions will be lifted "very soon." Even then, Gmail will retain a "beta" tag to signify the company still considers the service to be in a testing phase.

Getting a Gmail invitation hasn't been too difficult for some time. Current account holders have had as many as 100 invitations to send out to friends and family. Anyone willing to provide Google with their cell phone number can also request an invitation.

But the invitations were prized commodities when Google first introduced the service in April 2004. Shortly after Gmail's debut, some invitations were being offered on eBay Inc.'s Internet auction site for more than $100.

Gmail became a hot commodity because it initially offered 1 gigabyte of free storage per account -- 250 to 500 times more than the leading e-mail services offered by Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

After those rivals boosted their e-mail storage to match Gmail, Google quickly upped the ante. Each Gmail account now provides at least 2.6 gigabytes of free storage, with a little more space being added each day.

Gmail also raised privacy concerns because the service electronically scans e-mail content so it can distribute relevant ads alongside incoming messages.

Without providing specifics, Hohne said Gmail already has "tens of millions" of users. The service still remains far behind the competing services run by Yahoo and Microsoft.

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