20 Years of Gmail

March, 2024

Twenty years ago this week, Gmail was announced to the world.

It’s hard to overstate what a revolution this was at a time when free accounts from Hotmail or Yahoo offered only around 2Mb of email storage. Two megabytes seemed to go further back then, but it was not unusual to get a “mailbox full” error when sending someone an email. Before Gmail, most people used an email client on their computer to move emails off the server because of the limited space and basic web interfaces.

Gmail beta logo

When Google said on April 1st 2004 that they were releasing a web mail product with 1000Mb of storage, everyone assumed it was a joke. Hundreds of times more storage than your competitors, for free? That could not possibly be true.

Once it became clear that Gmail was not a prank and would soon be open for invite-only signups, I just had to get an account. People were selling their invite codes online and I bought one for a few bucks. I remember trying to claim nick@gmail.com (so hopeful!) but the minimum name length was 6 characters.

It wasn’t just the near-unlimited storage, the interface was also a revelation – new messages opened without reloading the whole page. Gmail was one of the first major sites to use AJAX before it was even called AJAX. Google had completely disrupted the mail hosting industry.

The heyday of Google

In the early 2000s Google was easily the coolest tech company. Apple had only just released the iPod and wasn’t that well known, Amazon was for buying books online and Facebook didn’t even exist yet. But Google was like Willy Wonka’s lab; no-one had any idea what incredible mad thing they’d come up with next.

Within a couple of years of launching Gmail, Google released a bunch of amazing and wildly popular products such as Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Earth, YouTube, and even Android.


Google didn’t invent any of those. They bought them.

Same with Waze, Nest, Google Flights, and Fitbit: all acquisitions.

It’s not like Google wasn’t creating products in-house, it’s just that not many of them were all that good. Of course there’s the famous stinkers like Google Glass, Google+, and Google Buzz. They seem to release another messaging app every month. Their cloud service is a distant third and they’re panicked about losing in AI, both markets that they could have dominated. Over the years Google has killed hundreds of products that could have been successful startups.

Was Gmail the last revolutionary product that Google actually invented?

Any comments or questions about this post? ✉️ nick @ this domain.

— Nick Randall

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