"'Heck, Yeah,' Say Google Founders"

20 years of Gmail
Will it still be here in another 20 years?

Speaking of real news on April Fools Day, here's Victoria Song looking back on some news from 20 years ago...

When Gmail launched with a goofy press release 20 years ago next week, many assumed it was a hoax. The service promised a gargantuan 1 gigabyte of storage, an excessive quantity in an era of 15-megabyte inboxes. It claimed to be completely free at a time when many inboxes were paid. And then there was the date: the service was announced on April Fools’ Day, portending some kind of prank.

But soon, invites to Gmail’s very real beta started going out — and they became a must-have for a certain kind of in-the-know tech fan. At my nerdy high school, having one was your fastest ticket to the cool kids’ table. I remember trying to track one down for myself. I didn’t know whether I actually needed Gmail, just that all my classmates said Gmail would change my life forever.

I was on the verge of graduating from college when Gmail launched. I only vaguely recall it back then as our school made us use Eudora for campus email,1 and I was still quite addicted to AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) at the time, so my @aol.com email was still my go-to personal email address that I couldn't see changing. My, how things change... I also had my own email address at my parislemon.com domain, which I was quite proud of figuring out how to set up. And really, I just didn't want another way to do more email. My, how things stay the same...

But I recall the immense thirst for Gmail quite well upon moving to Los Angeles and starting my life as an adult. It looks like I got an invite and signed up on January 29, 2005.2 From there, it was off to the races, as I distinctly recall constantly watching the free storage number tick up – what a great bit of marketing beyond the "1 GB Free" branding.

But Gmail’s solution also introduced a new problem: now you had way too many emails. That’s where Google’s search prowess came in. If you’re never deleting emails, speedy and reliable search is a must.

This new user behavior – not needing to delete emails – led directly to the real killer feature of Gmail: search. To this day, it's the single most important part of the system, certainly for me. I archive everything eventually and, in fact, archive most things via filters before they hit my inbox. The key is being able to search for what came in if and when I need it – and I often do!

Even with all the changes, Gmail feels largely the same. (Though, I guarantee if you look at an old picture of Gmail, you’ll be taken aback by how much has changed.) That may have to do with how few big or disruptive changes have been made in the intervening years. At launch, Google was free to shake up the email formula to its liking. Decades in, the company has to be careful not to disrupt the most widely used email service in the world.

It's one of the things I appreciated about the Inbox project Google launched several years back (and later shut down). It gave the company a way to try new things on top of email without disrupting the core for the billion-plus user base. And that's the issue, because so many people rely on Gmail for everything, you really can't hope to change too much, it's an extreme version of Innovator's Dilemma. It led to Mailbox, Superhuman, and a wide-range of other email startups. But the reality is that email's ultimate disruptor is simply other communication services – many of which are not only faster, but better suited to modern life – taking up more of peoples' time. Still, I suspect email will be with us at the end of days, as the ultimate cockroach of technology.

Sometimes, I wake up to 100 newsletters and marketing emails and get the urge to burn it all down — to start fresh with a calm, anonymous inbox. But the reality is, there’s too much to lose. I’ve moved four times in 10 years, but my email has stayed the same. Every day, I have a friend who nukes their account on social media, but no one ever stands up to announce they’re quitting email.

Well, not no one! But, of course, I came back. Because you have to. Again, just as email is survives as a fall-back communication system, Gmail is great because it's a search system for the catch-all. I simply don't want a lot of receipts and the like in Slack, WhatsApp, etc.

Honestly, what I really still miss is tangential to Gmail: Gchat – aka "Google Talk" which turns 20 itself next year. Not the 35 messaging services Google has offered over the past 15 years. The one that started it all. So simple. Still the best.

1 Remember Eudora? It wasn't half bad at the time, if memory serves. Certainly better than Microsoft Outlook. It has a fun backstory too:

Eudora was developed in 1988 by Steve Dorner, who worked at the Computer Services Organization of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. The software was named after American author Eudora Welty, because of her short story "Why I Live at the P.O."; Dorner rearranged the title to form the slogan "Bringing the P.O. to Where You Live" for his software. Although he regretted naming it after the still-living author because he thought doing so was "presumptuous", Welty was reportedly "pleased and amused" by Dorner's tribute.

Eudora was acquired by Qualcomm in 1991. Originally distributed free of charge, Eudora was commercialized and offered as a Light (freeware) and Pro (commercial) product. Between 2003 and 2006 the full-featured Pro version was also available as a "Sponsored mode" (adware) distribution.

I'm not sure why the University of Michigan was using it at the time, other than maybe the Big Ten connection? (Undoubtedly, it was also because Outlook for Mac required Exchange at the time and the campus, like many, had a big deal with Apple where Macs were 50% of the communal computer labs...) Also interesting that it was birthed on the same University of Illinois campus where the Mosaic browser was born six years later. And that, of course led to the the company/software that would eventually become Netscape Navigator.

2 Sort of wild to me that I was blogging, using Google's Blogger, no less, before I signed up for Gmail. Also wild that I signed up for Twitter only two years later -- almost exactly two years, actually -- it felt more like 20 years from starting to use Gmail to starting to tweet.