Gmail revolutionized email 20 years ago. People thought it was Google’s April Fool’s Day prank

Michael Liedtke, Associated Press

Published Monday, April 1, 2024 10:02 amEDT

Last updated Monday, April 1, 2024 10:02 amEDT

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin loved making pranks, so much so that they began throwing out wacky ideas every April Fool’s Day shortly after founding their company more than a quarter-century ago. One year, Google posted a job opening for a Copernicus research center on the Moon. For another year, the company said it planned to implement a “scratch and sniff” feature in its search engine.

The jokes were so exaggerated that people learned to laugh at them as another example of Google’s antics. And that’s why Page and Brin decided to reveal something no one would have thought possible 20 years ago, on April Fool’s Day.

It was Gmail, a free service with 1 gigabyte of storage per account, an amount that sounds almost vulgar in an era of one-terabyte iPhones. But back then it seemed like an absurd amount of email capacity, enough to store about 13,500 emails before running out of space compared to just 30 to 60 emails on the then-leading webmail services run by Yahoo and Microsoft. That translated to 250 to 500 times more email storage space.

In addition to the quantum leap in storage, Gmail also came equipped with Google search technology so users could quickly retrieve an old email, photo, or other personal information stored on the service. It also automatically linked a series of communications on the same topic so that everything flowed as if it were a single conversation.

“The original pitch we put together was around the three ‘S’s: storage, search and speed,” said former Google executive Marissa Mayer, who helped design Gmail and other company products before becoming CEO of Google. Yahoo.

It was such a mind-blowing concept that shortly after The Associated Press published a story about Gmail late on the afternoon of April Fool’s Day 2004, readers began calling and emailing to inform the news agency that they had been fooled by pranksters at Google.

“That was part of the charm, making a product that people wouldn’t believe was real. It kind of changed people’s perceptions about the types of applications that were possible within a web browser,” former Google engineer Paul Buchheit recalled during a recent interview with the AP about his efforts to develop Gmail.

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

The AP knew Google wasn’t kidding about Gmail because an AP reporter had suddenly been asked to go from San Francisco to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, to see something that would make the trip worthwhile.

After arriving at a still-developing corporate campus that would soon become what would become known as the “Googleplex,” the AP reporter was ushered into a small office where Page sported a mischievous smile as he sat in front of his laptop.

Page, then just 31 years old, proceeded to show off Gmail’s sleek inbox and demonstrate how fast it works inside Microsoft’s now-retired Explorer web browser. And he pointed out that there was no delete button in the main control window because it wouldn’t be necessary since Gmail had a lot of storage and was easily searchable. “I think people are really going to like this,” Page predicted.

As with so many things, Page was right. Gmail now has approximately 1.8 billion active accounts, each offering 15 gigabytes of free storage along with Google Photos and Google Drive. While that’s 15 times more storage than Gmail initially offered, it’s still not enough for many users who rarely see the need to purge their accounts, as Google hoped.

The digital hoarding of emails, photos and other content is why Google, Apple and other companies now make money by selling additional storage capacity in their data centers. (In Google’s case, it charges between $30 per year for 200 gigabytes of storage and $250 per year for 5 terabytes of storage.) The existence of Gmail is also the reason why other free email services and the internal email accounts that employees use at their jobs offer much more storage than was imagined 20 years ago.

“We were trying to change the way people had been thinking because people worked in this storage shortage model for so long that deleting became a default action,” Buchheit said.

Gmail was a game-changer in several other ways while also becoming the first pillar in the expansion of Google’s Internet empire beyond its still-dominant search engine.

After Gmail came Google Maps and Google Docs with word processing and spreadsheet applications. Then came the acquisition of video site YouTube, followed by the introduction of the Chrome browser and the Android operating system that powers most of the world’s smartphones. With Gmail explicitly intending to scan email content to better understand users’ interests, Google also left little doubt that digital surveillance to sell more ads would be part of its expanding ambitions.

Although it immediately created a stir, Gmail started out with a limited reach because Google initially only had enough computing power to support a small audience of users.

“When we launched it, we only had 300 machines and they were really old machines that no one else wanted,” Buchheit said, laughing. “We only had enough capacity for 10,000 users, which is a bit absurd.”

But that shortage created an air of exclusivity around Gmail that fueled feverish demand for elusive sign-up invitations. At one point, invitations to open a Gmail account were selling for $250 each on eBay. “It became kind of like a social currency, where people were saying, ‘Hey, I got a Gmail invite, do you want one?’” Buchheit said.

Although signing up for Gmail became increasingly easier as Google’s network of massive data centers came online, the company didn’t start accepting everyone interested in the email service until it opened the floodgates. as a Valentine’s Day gift to the world in 2007.

A few weeks later, on April Fool’s Day 2007, Google would announce a new feature called “Gmail Paper” that offered users the ability to have Google print their email file with “94% post-consumer organic soy sputum.” “and then I had it. sent to them via the Postal Service. Google was really joking around back then.

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