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

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin loved pulling pranks, so much so that not long after they started their company, they started taking ideas from all over the country every April Fool’s Day. more than a quarter of a century ago. One year, Google posted a job opening for the Copernicus research center on the moon. Another year, the company said it planned to roll out a “scratch and sniff” feature on its search engine.

The jokes were so consistently over the top that people learned to laugh at them as another example of Google’s misunderstanding. And that’s why Page and Brin decided to reveal something that no one would have believed possible 20 years ago on April Fool’s Day.

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

Aside from the quantum leap in storage, Gmail also came equipped with Google’s search technology so users could quickly retrieve a tidbit from an old email, photo or other personal information stored on the service. It also automatically joined a string of communications about the same topic so that everything flowed together as if it were a single conversation.

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

It was such a mind-bending concept that shortly after The Associated Press published a story about Gmail in the late afternoon of April Fool 2004, readers began to call and email to inform the news agency that it had been duped by pranksters Google.

“That was part of the magic, creating a product that people don’t believe is real. It changed people’s perception of the kinds of applications that could be made within a web browser,” recalled former Google engineer Paul Buchheit during a recent AP interview about his efforts to build Gmail.

It took three years to make as part of a project called “Caribou” – a reference to a running gag in the Dilbert comic strip. “There was something absurd about the name Caribou, it 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 was suddenly asked to come down from San Francisco to the company’s Mountain View, California, headquarters to see something that would make the trip worthwhile.

After arriving at a still-developing corporate campus that soon grew into what was dubbed the “Googleplex,” the AP reporter was ushered into a small office where Page wore an impish grin and he is sitting in front of his laptop.

Page, just 31 years old, continued to show off Gmail’s sleekly designed inbox and demonstrated how quickly it performed within the now-defunct Microsoft Explorer web browser. And he pointed out that there was no delete button visible in the main control window because it wouldn’t be necessary, because Gmail had so much storage and could easily be searched. “I think people are going to really like this,” Page predicted.

Like many other things, Page was right. Gmail now has around 1.8 billion active accounts – each offering 15 gigabytes of free storage now bundled with Google Photos and Google Drive. While that’s 15 times more storage than Gmail originally offered, it’s still not enough for many users who rarely see the need to clean up their accounts, just as Google hoped.

The digital financing of email, photos and other content is why Google, Apple and other companies now make money by selling extra storage capacity in their data centers. (In Google’s case, it charges anywhere from $30 per year for 200 gigabytes of storage to $250 per year for 5 terabytes of storage). Gmail also exists because other free email services and the internal email accounts used by employees at their jobs offer much more storage than 20 years ago.

“We wanted to change the way people were thinking because people had been working in this model of storage scarcity for so long that deletion was the default,” Buchheit said.

Gmail was a game changer in many other ways as it was the first building block 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 the 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’s stated intention to scan email content to better understand users’ interests, Google also had little doubt that digital surveillance to sell more ads would be part of its expanding ambitions.

Although it generated an immediate buzz, Gmail started out with limited scope as Google initially only had enough computing power to support a small audience of users.

“When we launched, we only had 300 machines and they were really old machines that nobody else wanted,” Buchheit said, with a laugh. “We only had enough capacity for 10,000 users, which is a bit absurd.”

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

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

A few weeks later on April Fool’s Day in 2007, Google would announce a new feature called “Gmail Paper” that would allow users to print out their Google email archives on “94% post-consumer organic soybean sputum.” and send it to them via the Postal Service. Google was really laughing at that time.

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