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

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin loved to play pranks, so much so that they started every April Fool’s Day prank with strange ideas not long after starting their company more than a quarter century ago had started. A year ago, Google posted a vacancy for a Copernicus research center on the moon. Another year later, the company said it planned to roll out a ‘scratch and sniff’ feature on its search engine.

The jokes were so consistently exaggerated that people learned to laugh them off as yet another example of Google mischief. And that’s why, 20 years ago, on April Fool’s Day, Page and Brin decided to reveal something no one thought was possible.

It was Gmail, a free service with 1 gigabyte of storage per account, an amount that sounds almost banal in an age of 1-terabyte iPhones. But it sounded like a ridiculous amount of email capacity at the time, 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 from Yahoo and Microsoft. That translated into 250 to 500 times more email storage space.

In addition to the huge leap forward in storage, Gmail also came equipped with Google’s search technology, allowing users to quickly retrieve something from an old email, photo, or other personal information stored in the service. It also automatically merged a series of messages on the same topic, so everything flowed together as if it were a single conversation.

“The original pitch we put together was all about the three ‘S’s: storage, search and speed,” says former Google executive Marissa Mayer, who helped design Gmail and other company products before later becoming CEO of Yahoo .

It was such a baffling concept that shortly after The Associated Press published a story about Gmail late in the afternoon of April Fool’s 2004, readers began calling and emailing to inform the news agency that it had been duped by Google’s pranksters .

“That was part of the charm, making a product that people don’t believe is real. It changed people’s perception of the types of applications that were possible in a Web browser,” former Google engineer Paul Buchheit recalled 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. “There was something absurd about the name Caribou, it just made me laugh,” says 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 abruptly asked to come from San Francisco to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, to see something that would make the trip worth it.

After arriving at a still-developing corporate campus that would soon become what would become known as the “Googleplex,” the AP reporter was ushered into a small office where Page wore a mischievous grin as he sat at his laptop.

Page, then just 31 years old, then showed off Gmail’s sleekly designed inbox and demonstrated how quickly it worked in Microsoft’s now-retired Explorer web browser. And he pointed out that there wasn’t a delete button in the main control panel because it wouldn’t be necessary since Gmail had so much storage and was so easily searchable. “I think people are really going to like this,” Page predicted.

As with so many other things, Page was right. Gmail now has an estimated 1.8 billion active accounts. Each account now offers 15 gigabytes of free storage, bundled with Google Photos and Google Drive. Even though that’s 15 times more storage than Gmail initially offered, it’s still not enough for many users who rarely see the need to clean out their accounts, just as Google had hoped.

Digital hoarding of email, photos and other content is why Google, Apple and other companies are now making 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’s existence is also the reason that other free email services and the internal email accounts that employees use for work offer much more storage space than was thought two decades ago.

“We were trying to change the way people thought, because people had been working in this storage scarcity model for so long that deleting became a default action,” Buchheit said.

Gmail was a game changer in several other respects, 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 video site YouTube, followed by the introduction of the Chrome browser and the Android operating system that powers most smartphones in the world. With Gmail’s explicitly stated intention to scan the contents of emails to better understand users’ interests, Google also left little doubt that digital surveillance to sell more ads would be part part of his growing ambitions.

Although it immediately caused a stir, Gmail started out with a limited scope, as Google initially only had enough computing power to support a small user base.

“When we launched, we only had 300 machines and they were really old machines that no one else wanted,” Buchheit said with a chuckle. “We only had enough capacity for 10,000 users, which is a bit absurd.”

But that scarcity created an air of exclusivity around Gmail, creating a feverish demand for elusive invitations to sign up. At one point, invitations to open a Gmail account were selling on eBay for $250 each. “It became a bit of a social currency, where people were like, ‘Hey, I have a Gmail invite, do you want one?’” Buchheit said.

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

A few weeks later, on April Fool’s Day in 2007, Google would announce a new feature called “Gmail Paper,” which offers users the chance to have Google print their email archive on “94% post-consumer organic soybean sputum” and then have it sent via the postal service. Google was really joking then.

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