Sunday, October 23, 2005

Costing Out Email’s Manifest Destiny

Robert X. Cringely recently explored the cost of all 202 million American Internet users’ having Gmail accounts that actually consume the free 1 gigabyte of storage. Let’s call it the manifest destiny of email storage.

Cringely enumerated the costs of hard-drive hardware and data-center power necessary to make that storage available. He took the total, $30 million, to be a big number in relation to a “free” (that is, advertising-based) email service.

In a great response, Ethan Stock finished the math to show that, even with Cringely’s assumptions multiplied by five, the capital-expenditure cost of one gigabyte of email per American Internet user is 62 cents, and the yearly operational expenditure is 8 cents. As Ethan indicates, the news here should not be how expensive it is but rather how cheap it is. Paying for it requires well less than a dollar per year in advertising fees (meaning Google’s cut of the advertising spent) per Gmail user.

To be fair, near the end of his piece Cringely raised the ante by saying the addition of pictures and video will raise the cost by two orders of magnitude. However, that is a future scenario. Over the time it takes to happen, hardware costs and operational efficiences will have continued to improve. Not to mention, the average American’s email storage requirements circa 2005 are well less than the gigabyte that Cringely posited before raising the ante. So the real costs have a lower starting point.

Of course, it’s always possible to create scenarios where these services become uneconomic. For me, however, the lesson here is how much can be economic.

Finally, it’s worth noting that while Cringely thought that realizing email’s manifest destiny would be hard and expensive, he still thought it would happen. And thus, in classic American fashion, the question between he and Ethan is not about whether something that seems improbably ambitious will happen but rather when it will happen.

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