Gmail users can now attach files as large as 10 GB, in a manner of speaking.
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The first automatically encoded email attachment was sent over 20 years ago, on March 11, 1992, by then Bellcore researcher Nathaniel Borenstein, using what would become the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) protocol. It was 406 KB, or thereabouts, assuming the .wav file posted on Borenstein's website is unaltered.
Since then, files have put on weight. Graphics files, music files and video files today are routinely measured in tens or hundreds of megabytes, even gigabytes. Internet users, however, still want to send files via email. ISPs, in an effort to prevent overloaded networks, tend to impose limits on email attachments. These limits vary, but tend to be in the 10-25 MB range, with a few services allowing larger files.
Google however wants to appear more generous still: It is offering Gmail users a way to email files of up to 10 GB.
"Have you ever tried to attach a file to an email only to find out it's too large to send?" wrote Google product manager Phil Sharp in a blog post. "Now with Drive, you can insert files up to 10 GB -- 400 times larger than what you can send as a traditional attachment."
However, Google isn't actually changing the mechanics of email attachments. It is integrating Gmail and Google Drive so that the process of attaching a file using Gmail saves the file in the user's Drive storage space. So when the user sends the attached file, he or she ends up sending a pointer to where the file resides in Google's cloud, a URL. Message recipients can then access the file, using the emailed URL to download it from Google Drive or simply to view it in a browser.
For Gmail users, the distinction between MIME attachments and Drive attachments isn't likely to matter. It would only come into play if, for example, if the recipient of an email with an attachment immediately went offline. A traditional attachment, within allowed size parameters, would be downloaded automatically by an appropriately configured mail client and would thereafter be available without an Internet connection. A Drive attachment, being just a link until accessed, would be inaccessible if the message recipient was offline.
Google isn't doing anything particularly new here: Cloud storage services like Dropbox and Box handle file sharing in a similar way. But Google has made Gmail more useful as a business tool, given that email remains the preferred collaboration application for many people. It has made Gmail into an alternative interface for Drive. In so doing, Google may gain a competitive advantage over standalone cloud storage services -- the popularity of Gmail is likely to encourage more use of Drive, potentially at the expense of other cloud storage competitors.
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