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

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Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin loved pulling pranks, so they started coming up with outrageous ideas every April Fools' Day shortly after starting their company a quarter of a century ago. One year, Google posted a job opening for a Copernicus research station on the moon. Another year, the company said it plans to build a “scratch and sniff” feature into its search engine.

The jokes are so consistently high that people have learned to laugh at them, which is another example of Google mischief. That's why Page and Brin decided 20 years ago on April Fools' Day to unveil something no one believed.

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It's Gmail, a free service with 1 gigabyte of storage per account, which seems almost pedestrian in the age of one terabyte iPhones. It could store about 13,500 emails before running out of space, compared to just 30 to 60 emails on the then-popular webmail services run by Yahoo and Microsoft. That translates into 250 to 500 times more email storage space.

In addition to the quantum leap in storage, Gmail also includes Google Search technology, so users can quickly retrieve information from an old email, photo or other personal information stored on the service. It automatically threads together a string of communications about the same topic, so everything flows together as a single conversation.

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“The original pitch we put together was all about the three 'S' — storage, search and speed,” said former Google executive Marissa Mayer, who helped build Gmail and other company products before becoming Yahoo's CEO.

It's such a mind-boggling concept that shortly after the Associated Press published a story about Gmail on an April fool's afternoon in 2004, readers began calling and emailing the news agency to report being duped by Google's pranksters.

“That was part of the appeal, making a product that people didn't believe was real. It changed people's views about the kinds of applications that were possible in a web browser,” former Google engineer Paul Buchheit recalled in a recent AP interview about efforts to create Gmail.

Part of the project called “Caribou” took three years to make — a reference to a running gag in the Dilbert comic strip. “There's something absurd about the name Caribou that makes me laugh,” said Buchheit, now the 23rd employee hired at the company, which has more than 180,000 employees.

The AP knew Google wasn't kidding about Gmail, because an AP reporter was suddenly asked to come down from San Francisco to the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters to see what was worth the trip.

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Arriving at the still-burgeoning corporate campus, soon to be known as the “Googleplex,” an AP reporter was ushered into a small office, where Page sat in front of his laptop computer with an impish grin.

Page, then just 31 years old, began showcasing Gmail's sleekly designed inbox and demonstrated how quickly it worked in Microsoft's now-retired Explorer web browser. And he pointed out that the delete button doesn't feature in the main control window because it's not needed, Gmail has a lot of storage and can be searched very easily. “I think people are going to really like it,” Page predicted.

Among many other things, the page is correct. Gmail now has 1.8 billion active accounts – each now offering 15 gigabytes of free storage with Google Photos and Google Drive. While that's 15 times more storage than Gmail initially offered, it's still not enough for most users who rarely see the need to purge their accounts, as Google hopes.

Digital hoarding of email, photos and other content means Google, Apple and other companies now make 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 why other free email services and internal email accounts used by employees at their jobs provide much more storage than was realized 20 years ago.

“We're trying to change the way people think because people have been operating in this model of storage scarcity for so long that elimination has become the default action,” Buchheit said.

Gmail was a game changer in many other ways, but became the first building block in expanding Google's Internet empire beyond its still-dominant search engine.

Gmail was followed by Google Maps and Google Docs with word processing and spreadsheet applications. It later acquired the video site YouTube and introduced the Chrome browser and Android operating system that powers most of the world's smartphones. Google has also left no doubt that digital surveillance is part of its expanding ambitions to sell more ads, as Gmail has made clear that it intends to scan the content of emails to gain a better understanding of users' interests.

Although it created an immediate buzz, Gmail launched with a limited scope, as Google initially had insufficient computing power to support a small number of users.

“When we started, we only had 300 machines and they were really old machines that nobody else wanted,” Buchheit said with a laugh. “We only have enough capacity for 10,000 users, which is a bit absurd.”

But that scarcity has created an air of exclusivity around Gmail, fueling intense demand for elusive invitations to sign up. At one point, invitations to open a Gmail account were selling for $250 each on eBay. “It's become like a social currency, where people go, 'Hey, I got a Gmail invite, do you want one?'” Buchheit said.

Although signing up for Gmail became easier as Google's massive network of data centers came online, the company didn't begin accepting all comers to the email service until 2007, when it opened the floodgates as a Valentine's Day gift to the world.

A few weeks later on April Fools' Day 2007, Google announced a new feature called “Gmail Paper” that gave users the option to print out their email archive on “94% post-consumer organic soybean phlegm”. Google really made a joke at the time for them through the postal service.



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