20 years of Gmail – The Verge


When Gmail launched 20 years ago next week with a silly press release, many people assumed it was a hoax. The service promised a massive 1 gigabyte of storage, which was an excessive amount in the generation of 15-megabyte inboxes. It claimed to be completely free at the time but many inboxes were paid. And then came the date: The service was announced on April Fool's Day, foreshadowing some kind of mischief.

But soon, invitations to the actual beta of Gmail started arriving – and they became a must-have for a certain kind of tech-savvy fan. In my nerd high school, your fastest ticket to the cool kids' table was to be one. I remember trying to figure out one for myself. I didn't know if I really needed Gmail, just that all my classmates said Gmail would change my life forever.

Teens are notoriously dramatic, but Gmail revolutionized email. It re-imagined what our inboxes were capable of and it became a central part of our online identity. The service now has an estimated 1.2 billion users – about 1/7 of the global population – and these days, doing anything online is a practical necessity. It often feels as if Gmail has always been here and always will be.

But 20 years later, I don't know anyone who makes even the slightest effort to open Gmail. Managing your inbox is often a daunting task, and Slack and other messaging apps like WhatsApp have come to dominate the way we communicate online. What was once a game-changing tool sometimes feels as if it has been sidelined. In the next 20 years, will Gmail still be the centerpiece of our lives? Or will it – and email – become a thing of the past?

The thing most people remember about the launch of Gmail is the free storage. What Google remembers is search.

“If you think about the type of value proposition that Gmail brought to the table when it first launched, it was all about lightning-fast search,” says Ilya Brown, Google's vice president of Gmail. People were tired of email management, says Brown. Spam was everywhere, and inbox storage was small. You constantly have to delete emails to make room for new emails. Gmail's huge storage limit solved this.

But Gmail's solution also introduced a new problem: You now had too many emails. This is where Google's search capabilities come into play. If you're never deleting emails, quick and reliable searching is essential.

If you're never deleting emails, quick and reliable search is essential

Google has changed the Gmail formula over time. In 2008, Google introduced themes, making Gmail's inbox much more whimsical than the competition. (The little tea-drinking fox and I have been friends ever since.) You now get 15GB of free storage. Gmail went mobile in the mid-2000s. And Google has made small changes like adding email preferences, smart replies, summary cards, and a one-click button to unsubscribe from that newsletter you definitely don't remember signing up for.

Despite all the changes, Gmail still feels largely the same. (Although, I guarantee that if you look at an old picture of Gmail, you will be surprised.) Is Changed.) This may have to do with how major or disruptive changes have been made in the intervening years. At launch, Google was free to change the email formula as per its liking. Decades later, the company has to be careful Disrupt the most used email service in the world.

“One thing we take very seriously is building for things that[Gmail users]need,” says Maria Fernandez Guajardo, senior director and product manager at Gmail. There are high expectations of reliability attached to a product like Gmail. While Google is eager to experiment, the company needs to be extra careful in introducing any new features and explaining how they will impact the product.

Google brought Gmail to mobile in the mid-2000s.
Photo by Fabian Sommer/Picture Coalition via Getty Images

This is why Google has made so few major changes over the years. Even though online communication has intensified with DMs, group chats, and corporate messaging tools, much of it has happened in or outside of Gmail. Email still has its place, but it's no longer the central way we communicate. I used to keep Gmail open in my browser to talk to my friends and colleagues through Gchat. Now, I keep my Gmail on the side and stay in Slack.

When you have so much storage that you never have to delete anything, you can keep an infinite record of your life. Packages, receipts, itineraries from past trips, messages from loved ones, photos, appointments, documents – you can simply label them, archive them, and find them later.

A lot of it is shit, but there are special moments mixed within it too. When I moved abroad in my 20s, I kept in touch with my parents through email. Now that they're gone, I'm grateful to have a record of that love in my Gmail. When I search for those emails, it feels like I'm moving forward in time. I looked through old college internship applications and frowned at my old resume. There were silly e-cards from my high school friends. The saddest breakup email from my first real heartbreak. A perfect battle plan with friends to defeat Ticketmaster hamilton stamp. Little things that took me to a different place in my life.

then and Now.
Image: Google

With most of those communications now occurring over text or social media DMs, a decentralized network of communication is far more disposable. Finding your DMs isn't as easy as finding your inbox. If you want to access old messages, you have to pay for Slack. It's hard to scroll through my TikTok DMs to find a video sent by a friend if it hasn't happened within the last day or two. I'm often tempted to take screenshots of chats I want to remember – only to have them get lost in my camera roll. Gmail's archiving capabilities are still unmatched.

Gmail is like a passport to the Internet

As Gmail became too slow for everyday communication, email became the “official” communication channel – a place for things for which you need searchable, solid records. The fun is over with this. I had to create a buttoned-up email address because my high school was so embarrassing. New parents often create emails for their newborns, both to secure an address and as a kind of digital baby book.

“We definitely believe that Gmail is almost like an identity. It's almost like it's your representative to the outside world, says Brown. “How do we help[Gmail]develop identity with users over time? We don't have a solution yet, but we're thinking about it.”

Gmail is like a passport to the Internet. Whenever I create a new account for a site or service, it's linked to my Gmail. Often, it also doubles as my username. My Gmail is my ticket to all my apps, health care, taxes, bank accounts — my entire digital life. If I get locked out of anything, I go to my Gmail to get back. I may not get excited to open Gmail anymore, but my Gmail password is still the most important thing in my life.

Sometimes, I look at 100 newsletters and marketing emails and feel the urge to trash them all — to start fresh with a quiet, anonymous inbox. But the reality is that there is a lot to lose. I moved four times in 10 years, but my email remained the same. Every day, I have a friend who attacks his account on social media, but no one gets around to announcing that he is leaving the email. (Will Slack and TikTok still be here in 20 years?) I imagine what a headache it would be to set up a new email, Everyone Know, and the people who will fall through the cracks. There's no doubt that Gmail will endure; I'm less sure about what my relationship with it will be.

It seems Google is aware of this dichotomy, and is saying it wants to make emailing less laborious – to sprinkle some of that initial joy back into the inbox.

No one stands up to announce they are quitting email

“We want to think about different enjoyable moments that aren't always associated with email,” says Brown. “Sometimes there are things you don't have to do or things that help you do something faster.”

For example, if you email a coworker about getting coffee, perhaps Gmail's AI pops up a recommendation for a local café and puts it on your Google Calendar. To me, it feels like turning Gmail into a personal assistant or digital librarian for my life. It's still a form of managing my life's endless archives, but maybe email is just that now. Perhaps we can't re-invent the inbox – just make it less terrible to manage.


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