Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something. – Morihei Ueshiba
Contrary to common belief, Gmail was not born of Google’s legendary 20 percent time. Gmail’s creator, Paul Buchheit, had already begun working on an email software in 1996 in his personal capacity. These were the days before Hotmail, and Paul had been dissatisfied with email for a while: He was in college, and he had to head back to his dorm room every time he wanted to check his email. Buchheit thought, “That’s so stupid. I should be able to just check it anywhere.” He had a few ideas, and wanted to create a web-based email. However, Buchheit he wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, and didn’t know where exactly his random project was going. He eventually got bored, so despite having an interest in email, the service never quite materialised.
Fast forward a few years, Buchheit joined Google in 1999 as its 23rd employee. In 2001, Larry Page asked Buchheit if he wanted to build some type of email or personalisation product. Larry Page and Sergey Brin just said “We think this is an interesting area,” and let Buchheit run with it. The Google founders provided no specific instructions or direction.
Email in the early 2000s were clumsy desktop programs that had not evolved much since their inception. Interfaces were slow, and webmail storage was abysmal. Hotmail gave users a measly 2MB of storage, while Yahoo gave users a slightly better 4MB.
One of Buchheit’s first projects at Google had been Google Groups. In 2001, Groups had acquired Usenet’s large database of newsfeeds, articles, discussions, and messages. Usenet had been one of the oldest computer network communications systems in widespread use, with archives dating back to 1980. Google Groups had essentially indexed all of Usenet’s content. Since Buchheit was already familiar with the Group’s code, he simply pointed Groups’ powerful search feature on his own email, rather than at Usenet. The first version of Gmail was built in a day – a search engine for email. At first, Buchheit’s email search engine operated on a server at his desk. And it only searched Buchheit’s email. Even then it was useful for other Google engineers, as they had a lot of the same email as Paul. Google’s work culture at the time was heavily dependent on email, and Buchheit received 500 emails each day. There was a demand for email search. Buchheit’s colleagues soon requested for the feature for themselves, so that they could search their own email. Buchheit then added several never-seen-before features that distinguished Gmail from its competitors, and have since proliferated across other email clients: Large storage. 1GB in 2004 was a massive amount of storage, compared to the 2-4 MB typically available in the market.
Gmail was the first to web-based mail provider introduce autocomplete. People were sending email so fast, auto-complete saved them the hassle of remembering email addresses. Gmail allowed users to archive emails instead of deleting them. Buchheit found that users deleted email either because they were running out of space, or to organise their inboxes that would become unmanageable if they kept all their emails. But these problems were easily solved with Gmail’s unique search function and massive 1GB storage. Now it wasn’t necessary to delete emails.
Googlers received a huge volume of email, and communicated mostly over email. Internal users would receive one email from a person, and then have four different people respond simultaneously. It was messy. People had to organize their email intensively, trying to connect multiple threads. Conversations were introduced into Gmail, showing emails from a ‘chat’ perspective. The team also decided to hide quoted text, so readers would not have to keep seeing repeated content.
Gmail developed organically, with the dedicated team trying to solve problems they themselves or their early users faced. Whenever a user would say, “I have this problem” the team would spend time investigating the underlying causes to come up with solutions. Nevertheless, Gmail hadn’t quite found its place within the Google sphere. Google had focused obsessively on search in those days. That was how it had beaten out competitors like Yahoo, Lycos, and the like. It wasn’t immediately obvious that Gmail should be launched as a commercial product. The organization’s atmosphere was not always supportive of the Gmail project. The idea was strange, even controversial at Google. People were concerned from both a product and strategic perspective. As Gmail did not have anything to do with web search, detractors thought the product would cause companies such as Microsoft to come after Google. Fortunately, Page and Brin remained supportive of the project.
Gmail launched on 1 April 2004. Because of the enormous storage space allocation, as well as the launch date, many people thought it was a hoax. Google had been known for pranking its users on April Fool’s and the mammoth storage space was unprecedented. “If you’re far enough ahead that people can’t figure out if you’re joking, you know you’ve innovated,” says Brian Rakowski, Gmail’s first product manager.
Once the public realised that Gmail was a legitimate offering, demand for email accounts soared. However, Google simply did not have sufficient server capacity for everyone, and could only provide a accounts by invitation. Purely by accident, the limited rollout created a halo of exclusivity around Gmail, and was hailed as one of the best marketing decisions in tech history. eBay users were even willing to bid $150 for a Gmail account.
In April 2018, Google announced that Gmail had 1.4 billion users. That’s one of every five people in the world!