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Gmail is the best thing that ever happened to Sun Microsystems.

Of course, Googles Gmail service doesnt directly have any relationship with Sunat least none that Google has disclosed. Like most of Googles infrastructure, Googles Gmail service is probably hosted on racks and racks of Intel-based computers running some variant of Linux. Googles expertise is in making thousands of these machines run in concert as a single computational resourcea resource that can store thousands of terabytes and satisfy simultaneous requests from millions of users.

Sun, on the other hand, makes much of its money these days by selling big iron computers to companies that havent mastered the art of so-called grid computing. Suns customers find it easier to scale their computing problems by throwing money at their problems. It sells mainframe-class machines with dozens or even hundreds of processors that are incredibly reliable and capable of handling tens of thousands of simultaneous requests. The economics behind what Google is doing and what Sun is selling couldnt be more different.

Nevertheless, Gmail validates a claim that Sun has been making for nearly a decadethat its possible to replace a network of PCs running Windows with world-class computers offering computing services to low-cost and easily-managed desktop machinesperhaps machines so inexpensive that they dont even have a hard disk. Sun called such computers thin clients. While they are popular at some companies, they havent made real inroads against the Windows desktop because the applications just havent worked as well.

But Gmail does work just as well as a copy of Outlook Express running on the desktop. In some way, in fact, it works better. This is big newsbigger, in fact, then most people seem to realize.

Until Gmail, practically every Web-based application was a pale imitation of that same application running on a PC. Web-based applications had the advantage that they were accessible from any computer on the Internet on professionally managed servers, that the data was backed up, and that the applications themselves were constantly updated. But compared to applications running on your local machine the web versions had fewer features and performed more slowly. Most usersbusinesses and consumers alikewere unwilling to make that compromise.

Gmail is different. For starters, its blindingly fastso fast that it feels like it is running on your local computer and not in some data center. Click on a messages subject and it instantly appears. When you are done reading a message you click Archivethe message is instantly stored, and youre looking back at your inbox. (As with other Web-based mail systems, you can report spam simply by clicking report spam.)

Gmail gets its speed from some of the cleverest JavaScript ever written. Lots of information is stored inside your browser and redisplayed from memory; this avoids the need to constantly download pages from Googles servers. The JavaScript can “listen” directly to your keystrokes, allowing you to drive Gmail with single-letter commands: press y to archive a message, c to compose a new message, and so on. You dont even have to depress the Ctrl key, making Gmail even faster to use.

Gmail shows that Web applications with thin clients can have advantages over software running on your desktop. The most obvious is reliability: Gmail runs on Googles servers, not your hard drive, and Google almost certainly does a better job than you do with routine maintenance, backups, and the like. And because everything is kept on Googles servers, you dont have to wait for long downloads. Googles computers are blazingly fast: searching through the few thousand messages stored in my Gmail account is essentially instantaneous. Searching through the same amount of mail on my local computer takes ten seconds or more.

Gmails anti-spam system is nothing short of phenomenal. I sent Gmail a copy of my entire inbox for two weeksthats 200 real messages a day plus 500 pieces of spam. My anti-spam system at home let through about 20 spams a day; Gmail let through fewer than 5. Gmails big advantage in the anti-spam department is its ability to harness the collective vigilance of all Gmail users. Once a message has been reported as spam by a few dozen users, Gmails servers can pull that message out of everybody elses inbox.

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