And as every new service came along, everyone rushed to create the same addresses there as they had on the last one. Which will probably explain why there are so many idle accounts.
The biggest problem all of these services had was in differentiation - one webmail services is much the same as any other; and that's probably why Gmail forged such a strong following with its radically different inbox format.
There has been a good penetration into the education market by a number of such webmail players - within Australia, Gmail is present in University of Adelaide, Macquarie University and Monash University while Microsoft's Live@EDU browser-based email system is installed at University of Technology, Sydney, Edith Cowan University, WA Central TAFE, Curtin University, the Australian Catholic University, the University of Western Sydney, Flinders University, TAFE SA, the University of NSW and the University of Queensland.
However, there is one common weakness in all of these services - they are addressing an audience in their late teens or later.
So, is the widely anticipated service from Facebook going to break any new ground? Read on...
Currently, the site does not respond to a ping so it is clearly off the web.
So, why is Facebook keen to address this potential shortcoming in their offering? There are a couple of aspects to the answer, and both are interesting.
Firstly, as was hinted on the first page, most webmail services really only start to attract subscribers who are in their late teens - sure everyone creates email addresses for their kids at their local ISP, but does anyone actually USE those accounts?
Everyone knows that Facebook is targeting a much younger audience. Although (according to the terms of service) you have to be at least thirteen to become a user, a straw poll of parents at my son's primary school suggested there were a lot of primary school-aged children using Facebook in violation of that requirement.
The second aspect is more closely aligned with Facebook's overall philosophy - they really don't like their users visiting other sites. In particular, they have issues with Google as part of a long-running spat over the ability to export mail contacts.
So, if they find that a large number of their users are using Gmail, it's something they'd probably like to address.
To add more fuel to the fire, selected US-based journalist have been invited to a special event prior to Muck Zuckerberg's presentation at the web 2.0 Summit.
Take a look at the invitation linked above. Does it look like an old airmail envelope?
Just to put things in some degree of perspective, Jason Kinkaid at Techcrunch observes "Facebook has the world's most popular photos product, the most popular events product, and soon will have a very popular local deals product as well. It can tweak the design of its webmail client to display content from each of these in a seamless fashion (and don't forget messages from games, or payments via Facebook Credits). And there's also the social element: Facebook knows who your friends are and how closely you're connected to them; it can probably do a pretty good job figuring out which personal emails you want to read most and prioritize them accordingly."
One wonders now if the push to have everyone grab a vanity address some months ago was in effect the first stage of creating the email addresses.
So, to answer the question in the opening statement, "how valuable will it be?" Probably a lot more valuable to Facebook than to Facebook's users.
Time will tell.
PS - there are also rumours that AOL is about to relaunch email in advance of the Facebook announcement. Fun times indeed.