Google's Gmail launched on April Fool's Day 20 years ago

An advert for Google's Gmail appears on the side of a bus on September 17, 2012.
An advert for Google's Gmail appears on the side of a bus on September 17, 2012. Copyright Sunday Alamba/AP Photo
By Euronews with AP
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Twenty years on, Google's Gmail now has an estimated 1.8 billion accounts.

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Google launched its email service Gmail 20 years ago today in a press release that some thought was a joke.

Gmail was described then as "a free search-based webmail service with a storage capacity of up to eight billion bits of information, the equivalent of 500,000 pages of email. Per user".

The company's co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were known for pulling pranks and two decades ago, the idea of having so much email storage was seen as absurd.

Gmail could store about 13,500 emails before running out of space, compared to just 30 to 60 emails in the then-leading webmail services run by Yahoo and Microsoft.

The idea was that users would not have to file or delete messages, with three key features: search, storage and speed.

The service was inspired by "a Google user complaining about the poor quality of existing email services," according to Page.

"She kvetched about spending all her time filing messages or trying to find them," he said, according to the 2004 press release.

"And when she’s not doing that, she has to delete email like crazy to stay under the obligatory four-megabyte limit. So she asked, ‘Can’t you people fix this?'"

'Making a product people won't believe is real'

Gmail was built on Google's search technology, allowing people to use keywords to find emails and organising emails into "conversations" to show replies more clearly.

“That was part of the charm, making a product that people won't believe is real. It kind of changed people’s perceptions about the kinds of applications that were possible within a web browser," former Google engineer Paul Buchheit said in a recent AP interview about his efforts to build Gmail.

There are now an estimated 1.8 billion Gmail accounts each with 15 gigabytes of free storage bundled with Google Photos and Google Drive.

Companies such as Google and Apple today make money off additional storage capacity. Gmail's existence is why other free email services and the internal email accounts that employees use on their jobs offer far more storage than was fathomed 20 years ago.

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

While it generated a buzz, Gmail started as a preview for a few "email aficionados" since Google only had enough computing capacity to support a small audience of users.

“When we launched, we only had 300 machines and they were really old machines that no one else wanted,” Buchheit told AP.

"We only had enough capacity for 10,000 users, which is a little absurd," he added.

But that scarcity created an air of exclusivity around Gmail that drove feverish demand for sign-up invitations.

"It became a bit like a social currency, where people would go, ‘Hey, I got a Gmail invite, you want one?'" Buchheit said.

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Signing up for Gmail became easier as the company's network of data centres came online, with access to the email service opening up in 2007.

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