This is a strictly opinion piece and I have no inside knowledge as to Google’s plans.
I think Google may have hit on a great idea when they designed Gmail and the way in which their “beta” distributes Gmail addresses. It may be too short lived because of attempts to circumvent the system.
Perhaps one of the most prevalent problems with free email addresses is that it takes minimal effort to get that account. As a result, we get AOL syndrome. There are too few string combinations to go around. Instead of getting simply “derik” as one’s login, you’re forced to come up with an obfuscated version, with the most obvious one being attachment of numbers to the end of it (such as one’s birthday). So, instead of “derik” you’d end up with “derik112881” (please send presents).
Without buddylists, could you remember even half of the names on your own AIM buddylist? I know I couldn’t. I personally avoid numbers at all costs, but not everyone is so clever. Names degenerate into indecipherable, incoherent jumbles of letters and numbers, defeating the entire purpose of customizable logins (recognizability).
Instead, Gmail seeded a small number of users with accounts (reducing the chance of people overlapping in chosen username). Next, they gave those users “invites” which allow them to choose who gets an account. With the amount of buzz that Google managed to generate by being the first to promise 1 GB email, the demand is incredibly high. Those with real motivation to get an account end up getting those few precious invites. That’s an effective measure against “love ‘em and leave ‘em” users (whom get an account, with a good username, just because they can and then just stop using it all together, precluding its use by an actually interested party).
Not only does this reduce wasted logins, but it allows Google to keep tight control on the number of users. This eliminates the possibility of an overloaded system, and ensures the speed that is part of what makes Gmail so great.
As a side effect, Gmail invites are a type of currency (they are sold on eBay, which had 377 Gmail invite auctions at press time, and even traded on GmailSwap). I even offered them up for help with this website.
I think the longer Google maintains the current system, the better off they will be, but only time will tell what they will do. Personally, I think it’s a brilliant way of running things.