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

San Francisco, California –

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin loved playing pranks, so much so that they started coming up with wacky ideas every April Fool’s Day, shortly after starting their company over a year ago. quarter of century. One year, Google posted a job posting for a Copernicus research center on the Moon. Another year, the company announced plans to roll out a “scratch and sniff” feature to its search engine.

The jokes were so consistently over-the-top that people learned to laugh at them as another example of Google mischief. 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 offering a gigabyte of storage per account, an amount that seems almost commonplace in the age of terabyte iPhones. But at the time, that 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 in the then-leading webmail services run by Yahoo and Microsoft. This translated to 250 to 500 times more email storage space.

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

“The initial pitch we came up with was about the three S’s: storage, search and speed,” said Marissa Mayer, a former Google executive who helped design Gmail and other company products. before later becoming CEO of Yahoo.

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

“That was part of the charm of creating a product that people won’t believe is real. “It kind of changed people’s perception of what kinds of applications were possible in a Web browser,” former Google engineer Paul Buchheit recalled in a recent interview with AP about his efforts to create Gmail.

It took three years to make as part of a project called “Caribou” – a reference to the running gag 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 that Google wasn’t kidding about Gmail, because an AP reporter was abruptly asked to come from San Francisco to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to see something worth seeing. journey.

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

Page, then just 31, demonstrated Gmail’s sleekly designed inbox and demonstrated how quickly it worked in Microsoft’s now-retired Web Explorer browser. And he pointed out that there was no delete button in the main control window, because that wouldn’t be necessary, given that Gmail had a lot of storage and could be searched so easily. “I think people are really going to like it,” Page predicted.

As with many other things, Page was right. Gmail now has around 1.8 billion active accounts, each now offering 15GB of free storage associated with Google Photos and Google Drive. Even though that’s 15 times more storage than what 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 the case of Google, the pricing ranges from $30 per year for 200 GB of storage to $250 per year for 5 terabytes of storage). The existence of Gmail also explains why other free email services and the internal email accounts that employees use for work offer much more storage than was imagined 20 years ago.

“We were trying to change people’s thinking because they had been working 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 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 smartphones around the world. With Gmail’s explicitly stated intention to analyze email content to better understand user interests, Google also left little doubt that digital surveillance with the aim of selling more ads would be part of his growing ambitions.

Although it immediately generated buzz, Gmail started with limited reach because 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 no one 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 sparked feverish demand for elusive invitations to sign up. At one point, invitations to sign up for a Gmail account were selling for $250 each on eBay. “It became a bit of a social currency, where people would say, ‘Hey, I got a Gmail invite, do you want one?'” Buchheit said.

Although signing up for Gmail has become increasingly easier as Google’s network of massive data centers has come online, the company only began accepting all comers to the email service. ‘after opening 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” giving users the ability to ask Google to print their email archives on “94% soy sputum.” post-consumer organic”, then send them. to them via the US Postal Service. Google was really joking at the time

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