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Gmail: Once upon a time there was Gmail…

You wanted to choose a single date to mark the beginning of the modern era of the web, you could do a lot worse than choosing Thursday, April 1, 2004, the day Gmail launched.

Rumors that Google was planning to offer a free email service had surfaced the day before: Here’s John Markoff of the New York Times reporting on it at the time. But the idea of ​​the search kingpin doing email was still surprising, and the claimed 1GB of storage capacity at 500 times that offered by Microsoft’s Hotmail seemed downright implausible. So when Google issued a press release dated April 1, many people briefly mistook it for a complete hoax. (Including me.)

Gmail turned out to be real, and revolutionary. And the decade-long perspective only makes it more important.

The first real reference service to emerge from Google since the launch of its search engine in 1998, Gmail not only blew up Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, the main free webmail services of the time. With its vast storage space, zipped interface, instant search, and other advanced features, it was perhaps the first major cloud-based application that was capable of replacing traditional PC software, not just replacing it. complete.

Even the elements of Gmail that annoyed some people foreshadowed the advent of the web: Scanning messages for keywords that could be used for advertising started a conversation about online privacy that continues to this day. today.

Within Google, Gmail was also considered a huge and unlikely market. It was in the works for almost three years before reaching consumers; Meanwhile, skeptical Googlers have updated the concept on multiple grounds, from technical to philosophical. It’s not hard to imagine an alternate universe in which the effort fell apart partway through, or at least resulted in something much less interesting.

“It was a great moment for the Internet,” says Georges Harik, who was responsible for most of Google’s new products when Gmail came into being. (The company then called these efforts “Googlettes.”) “Taking something that hadn’t been worked on in years but was central, and fixing it.”

Gmail: It all started with a search

Gmail is often cited as a shining example of the fruits of Google’s 20% time, its legendary policy that allows engineers to divide part of their work hours for personal projects. Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, disabused me of this notion. From the beginning, “it was an official charge,” he said. “I was supposed to build an email thing.”

He started the job in August 2001. But the service was something of a continuation of a failed effort that dated back several years before he joined Google in 1999, becoming its 23rd employee.

“I started making an email program before, probably in 1996,” he explains. “I had the idea of ​​creating a web-based email. I worked on it for a few weeks, then got bored. One of the lessons I learned from it is that it’s important to always have a product that works. The first thing I do on day one is build something useful, then continue to improve it.”

With Gmail—originally codenamed Caribou, borrowing the name of a mysterious business project sometimes alluded to in Dilbert—the first useful thing Buchheit built was a search engine for his own email. And it actually only took a day to make it. His previous project had been Google Groups, which indexed the Internet’s venerable Usenet newsgroups: All he had to do was hack the groups’ quick search function to direct it to his mail rather than Usenet.

At first, Buchheit’s email search engine ran on a server on his own office. When he asked other engineers for advice, they told him that he should also look in their mail. Soon he did.

The fact that Gmail started with a search function far better than anything offered by the major email services had a profound impact on its character. If it had simply matched Hotmail’s capability, it wouldn’t have needed industry-level research. After all, it’s hard to lose anything when you only have a few megabytes of space.

But serious research practically required serious storage: It allowed you to keep all your emails forever, rather than frantically deleting them to stay below your limit. This led to the final decision to give each user 1GB of space, a figure Google settled on after considering generous but not absurd capacities, like 100MB.

However, long before Google chose to give Gmail users 1 GB of space, it must have decided that Gmail would be a commercial product at all. This was a no-brainer, even though Google itself had a maniacal email-centric culture.

In its early days, one of the company’s hallmarks was its obsession with its search engine, which distinguished it from Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and other search pioneers who had repurposed themselves as “portals”, expanding their ambitions to encompass everything from weather to sports to gaming and, yes, email. Portals had a reputation for doing many things, but not necessarily doing them very well.

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“A lot of people thought it was a really bad idea, both from a product perspective and a strategy perspective,” Buchheit says of his email project. “The concern was that it had nothing to do with web search. There were also concerns that it would lead to other companies like Microsoft killing us.”

[Page]Fortunately, the skeptics didn’t include Google’s founders. “Larry and Sergey have always supported us,” Buchheit says. “A lot of other people were a lot less supportive.” [Brin]

Buchheit had been working on his project for a month or two when he was joined by another engineer, Sanjeev Singh, with whom he had found the social networking startup FriendFeed after leaving Google in 2006. (FriendFeed was acquired by Facebook in 2009.) The Gmail team has grown over time, but not exponentially; even when the service launched in 2004, only about a dozen people worked there.

Gmail’s first product manager, Brian Rakowski, learned about the service through his boss, Marissa Mayer, on his first day at Google in 2002, when he was fresh out of college. (He’s still at Google today, currently working on Android.) What he saw excited him, but it was still an exceptionally rough draft.

“It looked nothing like what Gmail does today, or even what it was when it launched,” he says. “I just finished college and was indoctrinated into usability testing and target users. I was pretty paranoid that Google engineers would like it and that it wouldn’t attract the market mass. I suffered a lot because of this.”

But all along, Gmail’s creators built something to please themselves, thinking that their email problems would end up being everyone else’s problems. “Larry said normal users would look more like us in 10 years,” Rakowski says.

What does Google email look like?

Even in August 2003, after two years of effort, Gmail had only the most rudimentary interface. That’s when another new Google hire, Kevin Fox, was tasked with designing the service’s interface. (After leaving Google, he was rehired by Buchheit and Singh at FriendFeed).

Fox knew Gmail had to go Googley; the challenge was that the meaning of this term was not entirely clear. The company didn’t yet offer a range of services: Besides the company’s eponymous search engine, one of the few precedents Fox could draw inspiration from was Google News, which debuted in September 2002. But Search and News were both websites. Gmail was going to be a web application.

“It was a fundamentally different product,” he says. “Luckily, they gave me a lot of leeway to explore different design directions.” Fox was aiming for something that took inspiration from both websites and desktop applications, without mindlessly imitating. After three major design stages, he settled on a look that is still very recognizable in the current version of Gmail.

Viewing Gmail as an app rather than a site also had technical implications. Hotmail and Yahoo Mail were designed in the mid-1990s; they featured slow as dogs interfaces, written in HTML. Almost every action you perform requires the service to reload the entire web page, resulting in an experience that pales in comparison to the responsiveness of a Windows or Mac program.

With Gmail, Buchheit circumvented the limitations of HTML by using highly interactive JavaScript code. This made it seem more like software than a sequence of web pages. Very quickly, this approach was called AJAX, which stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML; Today, this is how all web applications are built. But when Gmail pioneered this technique, it wasn’t clear that it was going to work.

Ambitious use of JavaScript “was another thing that most people thought was a pretty bad idea,” Buchheit says. “One of the problems we had was that the web browsers weren’t very good at the time… We were afraid that the browsers would crash and no one would want to use it.”

The more JavaScript Gmail used, the more sophisticated it became. One of its signature features was that messages in your inbox weren’t strictly sequential. Instead, in an effort to make threads easier to follow, all messages in a given back-and-forth chain were grouped into a group called a conversation, with any duplicate text automatically hidden. From a design perspective, Fox says, “trying to make the conversations obvious to the user and intuitive was the biggest challenge.”

Then there was Gmail’s business model. Some within Google advocated for it to be a paid service, but Buchheit and others wanted the service to reach as many people as possible, which was an argument for it being free and supported by advertising. Along with other free email offerings of the time, this meant flashy graphic banner ads, the antithesis of the small, inconspicuous text ads that, then as now, accompanied search results. Google search.

As with other aspects of Gmail, it wasn’t clear whether the plan to monetize through text ads would work. “I remember trying to show how useful each user would be in terms of advertising,” Mr. Rakowski recalls. “We had no idea.”

Advertising wasn’t just a math problem. Other email services already scanned the text of incoming messages, checking for spam and viruses, for example. But doing the same thing for advertising purposes was something new, and Google knew that some people might be scared off by any hard evidence that their messages had been read, even if the person doing the reading was a machine.

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“We thought carefully before doing what we did,” says Mr. Harik. “We wondered if this thing was a perceived violation of privacy or if it was real. We decided it would be a matter of perception.”

Gmail presented to the public

For much of its development, Gmail was a skunkworks project, kept secret even from most people within Google. “It wasn’t even guaranteed to launch – we said it had to hit a bar before we wanted to launch it,” Fox says.

copernicus center gmailBy early 2004, however, Gmail was working and almost everyone was using it to access the company’s internal email system. It was time to set a timetable for a public announcement. The date chosen by the company was April 1.

The Copernicus Center, the lunar research laboratory that Google also announced on April 1, 2004

It was not like any other day on the calendar. Google began its tradition of April Fools mischief in 2000; the company had a hoax in the works for 2004, involving the announcement that it was hiring for a new research center on the moon. She figured, correctly, that announcing Gmail at the same time would lead some people to think the announcement was a prank. Especially since the 1GB of space was unimaginably gigantic by 2004 standards.

“Sergey was very enthusiastic about it,” says Rakowski. “The ultimate April Fool’s joke was to launch something crazy on April 1 and still have it exist on April 2.”

The team had to race to meet the deadline, and as it turned out, Gmail wasn’t really ready to go: Google didn’t have the server capacity to provide millions of people with reliable, gigabyte-sized email. of space each. “We were at an impasse at the time of launch,” Buchheit recalls. “We couldn’t have a lot of machines because people thought we couldn’t launch, but we couldn’t launch because we didn’t have any machines.”

In the end, Gmail ended up running on three hundred old Pentium III computers that no one else at Google wanted. That was enough for the limited beta rollout the company was planning, which involved giving accounts to a thousand strangers, allowing them to invite a few friends each, and slowly growing from there.

On March 31, news about Gmail broke and continued through April Fools’ Day, causing some disbelief. “If you’re far enough ahead that people can’t tell if you’re joking, you know you’ve innovated,” Harik says. The journalists were calling us mainly to say, “We need to know if you’re joking or if it’s true.” It was fun.”

Once it was clear that Gmail was the real deal, invitations became a hot property. The limited deployment was born out of necessity, but “it had a side effect,” Harik says. “Everyone wanted it more. It was hailed as one of the best marketing decisions in tech history, but it was a bit unintentional.”

Bidding on eBay has sent prices up to $150 and up; sites like Gmail Swap emerged to connect people who had received invitations with those who desperately needed them. Having a Hotmail or Yahoo Mail email address was slightly embarrassing; having a Gmail address meant you were part of a club that most people couldn’t get into.

Despite the advertising bonanza, Buchheit seems a little nostalgic about the situation, even a decade later: “I think Gmail could have grown a lot more in the first year if we had more resources.”

The aura of exclusivity and experimentation remained at Gmail long after it gained momentum. Google continued to increase the number of invitations each user could send, but it wasn’t until Valentine’s Day in 2007 that the service was opened to everyone. And Gmail wore its Beta label like a badge of honor until July 2009. (The company eventually removed it as a sop to cautious business customers, who didn’t want to sign up for something that seemed unfinished).

Gmail’s use of ads related to the content of email messages has sparked backlash, perhaps more than Google anticipated. Some critics felt that it invaded the privacy of the sender, others that the recipient was the party whose rights were violated. Fear of inappropriate placements – such as pharmaceutical advertisements next to an email about suicide – was a common theme. And some reasonably wondered what Google was going to do with the data it collected to serve the ads, and how long it was going to keep it.

Gmail’s limited distribution – the same thing that made some people compete fiercely for eBay invites – has left other people developing an antipathy towards the service, based on assumptions rather than reality. “I went to dinners at friends of friends’ houses,” Rakowski says. “People were talking about Gmail, not knowing I worked on it, misunderstanding it because they hadn’t had a chance to try it.”

The backlash from privacy groups quickly escalated. On April 6, 31 organizations and advocates co-signed a letter to Page and Brin, raising a host of concerns about Gmail, calling it a bad precedent, and asking that the service be suspended until their concerns could be resolved. taken into account. “Analyzing personal communications as Google proposes is letting the proverbial genie out of the bottle,” they warned.

In Google’s own backyard, California State Senator Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) sent a letter to Google, calling Gmail “a disaster of enormous proportions, to yourself and all of your customers.” She then drafted a bill requiring, among other things, that any company wanting to scan an email message for advertising purposes must obtain consent from the person who sent it. (By the time the California Senate passed the law, cold reason prevailed and this requirement had been removed).

Google responded to the Gmail ad controversy by listening to criticism, detailing its policies on the Gmail site, and highlighting the work of journalists who thought the controversy was silly. He did not give in to those demanding fundamental change to the service, and pushed back against what he saw as irresponsible behavior by some enemies of the service:

When we began the limited testing of Gmail, we expected there would be intense interest in our service. What we didn’t anticipate was the reaction from some privacy advocates, columnists and lawmakers, many of whom condemned Gmail without first seeing it with their own eyes. We were surprised to find that some of these activists and organizations refused to even speak to us or directly try the very service they were criticizing. When reading news articles about Gmail, we regularly noticed factual errors and out-of-context quotes. Misinformation about Gmail has spread across the web.

It’s unfortunate for Google, but why should you care? Because it may affect your right to make your own decisions about how you read your mail. This misinformation threatens to eliminate legitimate and valuable consumer choices through legislation targeting the innocuous, privacy-friendly aspects of our service, while distracting from the real privacy issues inherent in all systems email.

“Ten years from now, we’ll probably look back at Gmail’s dust with… confusion,” wrote Slate’s Paul Boutin, one of the journalists whose pro-Gmail stances were echoed by Google in its response to the flap on private life. We mostly do: In 2012, the last time Google released an official count, Gmail had 425 million active users, suggesting that unease about its approach to advertising is a minority opinion. But the problem never completely went away. It’s still in court, and Microsoft continues to tell consumers that it’s a reason to use Outlook.com, Hotmail’s successor.

Gmail a decade later

There’s one remarkable thing about Gmail that wasn’t obvious in 2004: Its creators built it to last. The current incarnations of Outlook.com and Yahoo Mail are nothing like the email services that Microsoft and Yahoo offered a decade ago. But Gmail – although it has added features more or less continuously and has undergone significant changes – remains Gmail.

“I can’t imagine another app that’s been around for ten years in anything so close to its original form,” Fox says. “Someone who only used Gmail in its first version and suddenly uses it today would still understand Gmail. They would know how to use it for almost anything they wanted to do.”

“What makes the product what it really is is the constant focus on the types of problems we’re trying to solve for our users,” says Alex Gawley, Gmail’s current product manager. “If you look back to 2004, the big problems email users faced were having to delete messages due to lack of storage, not being able to find messages, and crazy amounts of spam.” The big opportunities today lie in making Gmail more action-oriented – which Google is doing with features like showing live flight status in messages – and reimagining it for mobile devices like phones and tablets. According to Mr. Gawley, such challenges will be enough to keep the Gmail team busy for the next fifty years.

Of course, while Gmail remains inventive, it’s now the establishment. When new apps and services like Mailbox and Alto appear, the experience they reimagine is the one created by Gmail, more than any other email client, over the last decade. The creators of any new service would be happy to do to Google what Google did to Microsoft and Yahoo in 2004.

Moreover, some of the problems that email still poses may not lend themselves to the type of problem-solving that Silicon Valley knows how to tackle. When I sent Buchheit a message to his Gmail asking to discuss this story with him, I received an automated message explaining that he was paused from recording emails, but only sporadically . Did the creator of Gmail think this email was broken again?

“The problem with email now is that the social conventions have become very bad,” Buchheit told me once we got in touch. “There’s a 24/7 culture where people expect a response. It doesn’t matter if it’s Saturday at 2 a.m., people think you’re responding to an email. people don’t go on vacation anymore. People have become slaves to email.

“This is not a technical problem. It cannot be solved with a computer algorithm. Rather, it is a social problem.”

It looks like the man who fixed email in 2004 is saying that the only people who can fix it in 2014 and beyond are those of us who use it — and sometimes abuse it — every day.

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