April Fool’s Day is traditionally the time of year that tech firms spring fake product launches and press releases upon us, as we saw plenty of yesterday. But ten years ago, Google surprised us all by announcing a real service on April 1 that would go onto usher in a new era for the internet, for the first time raising questions about digital privacy that still persist today.
It’s hard to believe nowadays, but at the time of Gmail’s launch on April 1, 2004, there were plenty of skeptics who thought the search engine giant would be unable to create a useful email service, and that it should stick to what it knows best.
“A lot of people thought it was a very bad idea, from both a product and a strategic standpoint,” said Gmail creator Paul Buchheit to Time’s Harry McCraken. “The concern was this didn’t have anything to do with web search. Some were also concerned that this would cause other companies such as Microsoft to kill us.”
However, Google pressed ahead with its plans, and by early 2004 Gmail was up and running, with virtually all of the company’s employees using it for their internal emails. The next step was a limited beta rollout, and weirdly the company settled on April Fools Day to make the announcement.
“That wasn’t just another random day on the calendar. Google had begun its tradition of April Fools’ mischief in 2000; the company had a hoax in the works for 2004, involving an announcement that it was hiring for a new research center on the moon. It figured, correctly, that announcing Gmail at the same time would lead some people to think that the announcement was a prank. Especially since the 1GB of space was unimaginably ginormous by 2004 standards.
“Sergey was most excited about it,” says Rakowski. “The ultimate April Fools’ joke was to launch something kind of crazy on April 1st and have it still exist on April 2nd.””
Gmail was the real deal, and even though the project had its doubters, it received full backing from Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin:
“In the end, Gmail ended up running on three hundred old Pentium II computers nobody else at Google wanted. That was sufficient for the limited beta rollout the company planned, which involved giving accounts to a thousand outsiders, allowing them to invite a couple of friends apiece, and growing slowly from there.”
Not everything went smoothly though. Within days of its launch, Google was forced to answer some tough questions over Gmail’s scanning of email content for advertising purposes. It was the first email service to ‘read’ people’s messages in order to serve them better ads, and the move had plenty of critics. No less than 31 organizations and privacy advocates co-signed a letter to Google, saying that Gmail set a “bad precedent” and calling for it to be suspended.
“Scanning personal communications in the way Google is proposing is letting the proverbial genie out of the bottle,” they warned.
But Google was undeterred, responding to these concerns by carefully explaining its policies on the Gmail site, and highlighting the work of journalists who believed there was nothing to worry about. In the end, Google refused to change its policies – to this day, it continues to ‘read’ people’s emails – and its a decision that’s paid off handsomely, even as these privacy concerns persist to this day.
Beginning with just a small roster of users in a limited beta, ten years later Gmail has become the largest email service in the world, officially surpassing Microsoft’s Hotmail in June 2012 with 425 million monthly active users. Today the service has close to half a billion users scattered all over the globe, and has given Google a platform to expand into numerous other services, including Google+, Google Drive, YouTube and more, helping it grow into one of the most successful tech companies of all time.