A 20-year email revolution that began on April Fool’s Day: A look back at the Gmail era


Google Co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin loved to draw examples, so much so that they started coming up with crazy ideas every April Fool’s day after starting their company more than a quarter of a year ago. One year, Google he opened a job to the Copernicus observatory on the moon. Another year, the company said designed to produce “scratch and sniff” appear on its search engine.

The joke was so ingrained that people learned to laugh it off as another example of Google’s evil. That’s why Page and Brin decided to reveal what no one would have believed would happen 20 years ago on April Fool’s Day.

It was Gmail, a free service that boasts 1 gigabyte of storage on account, the amount that sounds like walking under the years of iPhones of one terabyte. But it felt like a lot of email at the time, enough to store about 13,500 emails before running out of space compared to only 30 to 60 emails that were leading on websites managed by Yahoo and Microsoft. This translates to 250 to 500 times more email storage.

Apart from the increased storage capacity, Gmail also came with Google’s search technology so that users can quickly retrieve old emails, photos or other information stored on the service. It just connected the same topic connection so everything went together as if it were one conversation.

“The first word we put together was about the three ‘S’ – storage, search and speed,” said former Google CEO Marissa Mayer, who helped build Gmail and other company products before becoming CEO of Yahoo.

It was such a sensational idea that soon after the Associated Press published a story on Gmail on April Fool’s Day 2004, readers began calling and emailing to inform the media that they had been duped by Google hackers.

“That was part of the charm, making something that people couldn’t believe was real. It changed people’s thinking about the kinds of apps that were possible inside the browser,” Paul Buchheit, a former Google engineer, recalled in a recent interview with the AP about his efforts to create Gmail.

It took three years to do it as part of a project called “Caribou” – a reference to the running man in the Dilbert comic strip. “There was something absurd about the Caribou name, it just made me laugh,” said Buchheit, the 23rd employee of the company that now employs more than 180,000 people.

The AP learned that Google wasn’t joking about Gmail because an AP reporter was suddenly asked to come down from San Francisco to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, to see what would make the trip worth it.

Arriving at the sprawling campus soon to become the “Googleplex,” an AP reporter was ushered into a small office where Page, wearing a smart suit, sat in front of his laptop.

The site, then just 31 years old, first showcased a well-designed Gmail inbox and demonstrated how it works quickly within Microsoft’s now-retired web browser. And he said that there was no delete button displayed on the main control screen because it would not be necessary, because Gmail had a lot of storage and could be easily searched. “I think people are going to really like this,” Page said.

As with so many things, Page was right. Gmail now has about 1.8 billion active accounts – each with 15 free accounts backed by Google Photos and Google Drive. Although it is 15 times more storage than what Gmail originally offered, it is not enough for many users who do not see the need to delete their accounts, as Google hopes.

Digital storage of emails, photos and more is why Google, apple and other companies are now making money by selling extra storage capacity in their data centers. (In Google’s case, it charges anywhere from $30 a year for 200 gigabytes of storage to $250 a year for 5 terabytes of storage). The existence of Gmail is the reason why other free e-mails and e-mail accounts that employees use at work offer more storage than was thought of 20 years ago.

“We were trying to change the way people think because people have been working in storage for so long that removal is a constant,” Buchheit said.

Gmail was a game-changer in several other ways as it became the first step in expanding Google’s Internet empire beyond its existing search engine.

After Gmail came Google Maps and Google Docs and word processing and navigation. Then came the finding of a movie location YouTube, followed by the launch of the Chrome browser and the Android operating system used by most smartphones around the world. With Gmail’s well-known goal of analyzing email content to better understand user preferences, Google also left no doubt that a digital focus in pursuit of more ad sales could be part of its growing ambitions.

Although it created a lot of buzz right away, Gmail started with little because Google initially had enough computing power to support a small audience.

“When we started, we only had 300 machines and they were old machines that nobody wanted,” Buchheit said, laughing. “We only had capacity for 10,000 users, which is ridiculous.”

But that lack led to a stagnation in Gmail that led to many people not being invited to sign up. At one point, invitations to open a Gmail account were being sold for $250 each eBay. “It became like a crowdfunding, where people go, ‘Hey, I got a Gmail invite, do you want it?'” Buchheit said.

Although signing up for Gmail became easier as more of Google’s network came online, the company didn’t begin accepting all email subscribers until it opened its doors around the world on Valentine’s Day in 2007.

A few weeks later on April Fool’s Day in 2007, Google announced a new feature called “Gmail Paper” that gave users the option to have Google print their email history on “94% post-consumer organic soy cocks ” and then send them through the Postal Service. Google was really a joke back then.


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