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It’s been 10 years since Gmail changed email forever

Published Apr 1st, 2014 8:15PM EDT
Gmail 10 Year Anniversary

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Ten years ago today on April Fool’s Day 2004, Google launched Gmail, the game-changing email service that was anything but a joke. When Google launched Gmail, it revolutionized the way people use email. It launched with 1GB of free storage and encouraged people to archive e-mails instead of deleting them. This was a major improvement over the 2MB limit on Hotmail, which frequently forced people to decide which emails to delete when they hit their limit.

“[Google cofounder Sergey Brin] was most excited about it,” said Brian Rakowski, Gmail’s first product manager, in an interview with Time. “The ultimate April Fools’ joke was to launch something kind of crazy on April 1st and have it still exist on April 2nd.”

Over at Time, Harry McCracken has the inside story of how Gmail came together over 10 years ago. It began as early as 2001, when Gmail creator Paul Buchheit began working on an email web app after previous failed attempts within the company. Although it is often hailed as a product of Google’s famed 20 percent time, Bucheit says that “it was an official charge. I was supposed to build an email thing.”

Gmail began as a search engine for email. Buchheit borrowed code that was used by Google Groups to search Usenet groups and adapted it for his personal email. Eventually other Google engineers wanted to use this on their email, and as the service grew, Gmail’s first product manager, Brian Rakowski, focused on the web app’s user interface.

Gmail was one of the first true web apps. Instead of just running HTML, Gmail took advantage of advanced Javascript methods, using what is now called AJAX, or Asynchronous JavaScript and XML.

“One of the problems we had was that the web browsers weren’t very good back then,” Buchheit said. “We were afraid we’d crash browsers and nobody would want to use it.”

Google decided to make Gmail a free, ad-supported service after much internal debate. They were aware of the privacy concerns, but believed Gmail was respectful of its users’ privacy because their emails were only read by machines, not humans.

“We thought pretty hard before doing what we did,” says Georges Harik, who helped launch Gmail. “We thought, is this thing a perceived privacy violation or a real one? We decided it would be an issue of perception.”

When it did launch on April 1st, it was not without flaws. Privacy activists protested Gmail, and continue to do so to this day, but regular consumers clamored for what was then an invite-only service. Gmail launched with limited server space and to an initial beta of about 1,000 users. They each had a couple invites, and on eBay, invites to Gmail were selling for over $150.

Nowadays, Google has dropped its beta label and has undergone some major redesigns, but in many ways is recognizable from its early form.

“I can’t think of another app that has existed so close to its original form for 10 years,” said , Kevin Fox, a user interface designer for Gmail. “Someone who had only used Gmail in its first iteration and suddenly used it today would still understand Gmail. They’d know how to use it for virtually everything they’d want to do.”