History of Gmail: 20 Years Ago

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Gmail logo, March 31, 2004, the day before the announcement

HISTORY OF GMAIL

Twenty years ago, on April 1, 2004, Google released Gmail to limited beta testing for only 1,000 users outside Google.

Here’s the original press release.

A few months later, I got an invitation to the beta, which was not opened to the general public until 2007. What follows is the story of the evolution of this remarkable free email tool, which is now used by almost two billion users worldwide.

 

April Fools’ Hoax?

As I’ve written elsewhere, tech companies like Google are well-known for their April Fools’ Day pranks. Was this one of them?

Gmail was announced as:

  • Free
  • With Google Search
  • Labels
  • Threaded conversations
  • Wicked fast speed
  • With 1 gigabyte of storage

… or summarized in the initial announcement as the Three S’s: storage, search, and speed.

This was too much to believe. The storage space alone was 200–500 times that of other free email services!

 

History of the Creation of Gmail

Back in the annals of Gmail’s ideation, a Google Search user complained that existing email experiences were terrible, with limited space and an inability to find filed messages, asking if Google could do anything about it.

paul buchheit

Paul Buchheit, 1977

Paul Buchheit, Google’s 23rd employee, took advantage of Google’s “20 percent” time allotment, which allowed engineers to spend one day a week working on projects besides their primary job. He had previously worked on Google Groups, adding search to the corpus of USENET (NetNews) discussion groups. USENET, or Users Network, was a pre-World Wide Web, Unix-based style of Bulletin Board System (BBS) with threaded discussions.

Parenthetically, I started publishing my history articles on USENET 40 years ago. Buchheit’s next challenge was to point this search capability to email instead of USENET.

 

Gmail User Experience Differences

I previously worked as the Senior Director of Business Development for USA.NET, the first company to offer web-based email. This meant it did Software as a Service (SaaS) for email, sometimes called an ASP (Application Service Provider). Browser-based HTML, though, was a slow interface when you’re navigating around messages in an Inbox.

 

google mail beta logo

Gmail Beta

 

When I got my hands on Gmail, I was impressed by the following things: the Three S’s and more:

  • Speed: It used AJAX, which is short for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML. This significantly sped up the client-side web app. Ajax permits web applications to change content dynamically without reloading the entire page.
  • Search: Rather than worrying about where you filed a message in a folder, you could use Google’s renowned search engine to find it. No one else had that at the time.
  • Storage: 1 Gigabyte—who could need more? This meant you never had to delete messages if you didn’t want to, something that other free alternatives required to stay under their storage quota.
  • Keyboard Shortcuts: While the typical user need not be concerned about learning these, “power users” loved the way you could quickly archive, delete, and “star” messages as well as navigate through folders. In the Messages view, you could navigate up and down using “vi keybindings.” In other words, “j” moved you down through the message stack, and “k” moved you up. The vi editor was written by Bill Joy, who ran the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) of Unix project while he was a graduate student at Berkeley. He was one of the founders of Sun Microsystems and brought BSD to Sun as SunOS. Every Sun workstation came with the vi editor. Engineers love it.
  • Threaded Conversations: Having all messages on a given subject located in the same place was groundbreaking.
  • Conversation-specific Ads: While other free email sites offered huge banner ads, Gmail had small, relatively unobtrusive ads in the sidebar that were relevant to the subject of the email.
adverts

Gmail ads

 

  • Labels: rather than folders. When sorting messages out of the Inbox, most web-based email stored them into folders, hiding them. But Gmail allowed you to “tag” a message with multiple labels, either leaving it in the Inbox or archiving it.
  • Auto-completion: Navigating to different Labels (folders), selecting “To:” email addresses and other things in the interface sported auto-complete, a feature found commonly in most Unix shells and integrated development environments (IDEs) for writing code.

    auto complete

    Gmail’s use of JavaScript made features like auto-completion of contact names as you typed possible.

  • Spam Filtering: Gmail had the best spam filtering of any free web-based email client, even better than some commercial email clients.
  • Google Labs add-ons: As Gmail evolved, Google introduced “plugins” that expanded its functionality. Initially experimental, they caught on with power users. Today, Gmail’s API (application programming interface) allows third-party developers to integrate their programs into the email experience: Zoom scheduler, Dropbox, Grammarly, and Boomerang.

 

Previous Alternatives to Gmail

You can make a pretty good guess about how old a person is based on the email domain they use, or at least how long they’ve been using personal free email:

  • @aol.com: How ’90s
  • @yahoo.com: Used to be king, but the crown has fallen
  • @hotmail.com: Previous-millennium Microsoft tech

I’ve used all of them, but @gmail.com was a quantum leap beyond them all.

 

Most Popular Email Providers

 

Suspicions about Gmail

Google’s early revenue model of presenting ads by scanning Gmail’s email messages drew criticism from privacy groups within six days of the announcement and a California State Senator. Senator Liz Figueroa drafted a bill that called for Gmail to be suspended until her concerns were addressed. Gmail was a “Disaster of enormous proportions, for yourself, and for all of your customers,” she claimed, demanding the company get Gmail users to “opt-in” to this scanning. By the time the bill finally passed, that requirement was no longer in it.

Other email products automated the scanning of new messages for viruses, spam, and other malware, but none did it to offer ads.

Some critics were more interested in grabbing headlines than doing hands-on Gmail testing. Competitors still like to stir the pot to draw users to their platform.

 

My small part in Gmail proposals

I’ve been using email for over 40 years and was involved with an email startup over 30 years ago.

Many years ago, when I was interviewed at Google, an executive recruiter asked me to write a one-page product proposal that might get the attention of Product Management. I got the lead by emailing Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt, for whom I had worked at Sun Microsystems in the early ’90s.

I proposed monetizing the new Gmail as a commercial product with different tiers and prices. Higher tiers would have no advertising, larger storage allocations, better uptime, support, etc.

This was not a rocket science idea; Google had already been thinking about it. But it would be years before they rolled it out. Now, you see aspects of it in Google Workspace, formerly known as G Suite and Google Apps.

 

Gmail: First Among Other Google Apps

Ironically, Gmail was one of the first and most popular “apps” that Google released beyond its search engine. Many other apps would follow, though some had a short lifespan. Google Workspace now offers a “suite” of productivity apps, including Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Forms, Drawings, etc.

When Microsoft bundled its Office suite, Microsoft Mail was included in 1991. It couldn’t measure up to the other bundled products, Excel, PowerPoint, and Word, nor did it have the same “fit and finish.” However, it has evolved into the powerhouse used by more office workers than the others: Microsoft Outlook. It combines email, calendaring, and contact management and integrates with third-party tools.

But Outlook does not look like the original Microsoft Mail it started with when bundled in 1991; it’s larger in terms of disk space and memory footprint on one’s computer. However, Microsoft 365 now offers it as a web-based app. This is where Gmail started.

 

 

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
billpetro.com

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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