Is 50 the magic number? Some users of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Gmail have reported that they've been offered 50 invites for their closest friends and family. And that's caused some buzz as to whether this is it, in terms of Google going live with its free email solution. Is Gmail preparing to take on the world? Or is this just some sort of glitch in the system, like what occurred when Gmail briefly offered a terabyte of storage last year?

Well, it does seem it's about time that Gmail officially launches. After all, it's just shy of an entire year since Gmail first hit the scene. (I'm embarrassed to admit that I was one of the people who felt pretty sure that it could be nothing less than an April Fool's Day joke.) The initial brouhaha about privacy -- which I argued didn't hold water -- seems to have died down.

However, one might wonder what else has died down. Perhaps other people have had different experiences, but I find that I haven't been able to give away any more Gmail accounts after the 20 or so "Gvites" that I distributed over the course of the last year. I still have five invites sitting, orphaned, in my Gmail account at the moment. (Apparently, my account hasn't been deemed a good enough candidate for the 50-invite upgrade!)

Of my pool of possible recipients, I found that it was only the really technically savvy who were at all interested, obviously all amped up about the fact that it was from Google (and it's likely the invite-only form of viral marketing gave the perception of elitism for some as well). On the other end of the spectrum, I had some people ask me: (a) what the heck Gmail was, and (b) why the heck they needed it when their regular email worked just fine. Even the concept of using Gmail as a spam sponge, a backup, or a Web-based archive seemed lost on many people.

Don't get me wrong, I think Gmail's the best thing since sliced bread, I really do. However, if most people are indeed happy with what they already have, 50 invites per Gmailer is a joke. And if most people are happy with what they have in terms of Web-based email, then that's good news for services like Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO), Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) MSN, and Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) America Online. That also drives home the importance of first-mover advantage -- for many people, once they're using one service, that's all they want or need.

Google recently handed over some pretty amazing quarterly results and, theoretically, a widespread launch of Gmail, with its use of advertising to monetize its email, could certainly be some cause for celebration. Whether the 50 invites will make much of a difference in expanding the Gmail universe, however, remains to be seen.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.