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20 years of Gmail

When Gmail launched with a goofy press release 20 years ago today, many assumed it was a hoax. The service promised a gargantuan 1 gigabyte of storage, an excessive quantity in an era of 15-megabyte inboxes. It claimed to be completely free at a time when many inboxes were paid. And then there was the date: the service was announced on April Fools’ Day, portending some kind of prank.

But soon, invites to Gmail’s very real beta started going out — and they became a must-have for a certain kind of in-the-know tech fan. At my nerdy high school, having one was your fastest ticket to the cool kids’ table. I remember trying to track one down for myself. I didn’t know whether I actually needed Gmail, just that all my classmates said Gmail would change my life forever.

Teenagers are notoriously dramatic, but Gmail did revolutionize email. It reimagined what our inboxes were capable of and became a central part of our online identities. The service now has an estimated 1.2 billion users — about 1/7 of the global population — and these days, it’s a practical necessity to do anything online. It often feels like Gmail has always been here and always will be. 

But 20 years later, I don’t know anyone who’s champing at the bit to open up Gmail. Managing your inbox is often a chore, and other messaging apps like Slack and WhatsApp have come to dominate how we communicate online. What was once a game-changing tool sometimes feels like it’s been sidelined. In another 20 years, will Gmail still be this central to our lives? Or will it — and email — be a thing of the past?  

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

“If you think about the kind of value proposition that Gmail brought to the table when we first started, it was about lightning-fast search,” says Ilya Brown, Google’s VP of Gmail. People were tired of email management, Brown says. Spam was everywhere, and inbox storage was tiny. You constantly had to delete emails to make room for new ones. Gmail’s giant storage limit solved that.

But Gmail’s solution also introduced a new problem: now you had way too many emails. That’s where Google’s search prowess came in. If you’re never deleting emails, speedy and reliable search is a must.

If you’re never deleting emails, speedy and reliable search is a must

Google has tweaked 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 buddies ever since.) You now get 15GB of free storage. Gmail went mobile in the mid-2000s. And Google has made smaller changes like adding email priorities, smart replies, summary cards, and the one-click button to unsubscribe from that newsletter you definitely don’t remember signing up for.

Even with all the changes, Gmail feels largely the same. (Though, I guarantee if you look at an old picture of Gmail, you’ll be taken aback by how much has changed.) That may have to do with how few big or disruptive changes have been made in the intervening years. At launch, Google was free to shake up the email formula to its liking. Decades in, the company has to be careful not to disrupt the most widely used email service in the world. 

“What we take very seriously is building for things that [Gmail users] need,” says Maria Fernandez Guajardo, senior director and product manager for Gmail. With a product like Gmail comes big expectations for reliability. While Google is keen to experiment, the company has to take extra care in rolling any new features out and explaining how they’ll impact the product.

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

This could be why Google has made so few major changes over the years. Even as online communication has accelerated with DMs, group chats, and corporate messaging tools, most of that has happened around or outside of Gmail. Email still has its place, but it’s not quite the central way we communicate anymore. I used to keep Gmail open in my browser to talk to my friends and colleagues through Gchat. Now, I live in Slack with my Gmail off to the side.

When you have enough storage that you never have to delete anything, you can keep an infinite record of your life. Packages, receipts, itineraries of past trips, messages from loved ones, photos, appointments, documents — you can just label them, archive them, and search for them later.

A lot of this is detritus, but there are special moments mixed within. Email was how I kept in touch with my parents when I moved abroad in my 20s. Now that they’re gone, I’m grateful to have a record of that love sitting in my Gmail. When I go searching for those emails, it feels like stepping through time. I saw old college internship applications and grimaced through my old résumé. There were goofy e-cards from my high school pals. The cringiest breakup email from my first real heartbreak. A whole battle plan with friends to defeat Ticketmaster for Hamilton tickets. Little things that teleported me to a different place in my life.

Then, and now.
Image: Google

Most of those communications now happen over text or social media DMs, a decentralized network of communications meant to be far more disposable. It’s not quite as easy to search through your DMs as it is your inbox. Slack requires you to pay if you want to access older messages. Scrolling through my TikTok DMs to find a video a friend sent is tedious if it didn’t happen within the past day or two. I often feel the urge to screenshot chats I want to remember — only for them to get lost in my camera roll. Gmail’s ability to archive is still unmatched.

Gmail is like a passport for the internet

As Gmail became too slow for day-to-day communication, email became the “official” communication channel — a place for things you need searchable, tangible records of. It’s taken the fun out. I had to create a buttoned-up email address because my high school one was too embarrassing. New parents often make emails for their newborn children, both to secure an address and as a sort of digital baby book.

“We definitely recognize that Gmail is almost like an identity. It’s almost like it’s a representative of you in the outside world,” says Brown. “How do we help identity to evolve with [Gmail] users over time? We don’t have a solution yet, but we’ve been thinking about it.” 

Gmail is like a passport for the internet. Whenever I create a new account for a site or service, it’s tied 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 in. I may not be excited to open up Gmail anymore, but my Gmail password is still the most important one in my life. 

Sometimes, I wake up to 100 newsletters and marketing emails and get the urge to burn it all down — to start fresh with a calm, anonymous inbox. But the reality is, there’s too much to lose. I’ve moved four times in 10 years, but my email has stayed the same. Every day, I have a friend who nukes their account on social media, but no one ever stands up to announce they’re quitting email. (Will Slack and TikTok even be here in 20 years?) I imagine the headache it’d be to set up a new email, to let everyone know, and the people who would fall through the cracks. It’s no question Gmail will endure; what I’m less certain of is what my relationship with it will be.

Google seems aware of this dichotomy, saying it wants to make email less laborious — to sprinkle a bit of that initial joy back into the inbox. 

No one ever stands up to announce they’re quitting email

“We want to think about, you know, the different delightful moments that aren’t always associated with email itself,” says Brown. “Sometimes that’s things you didn’t have to do or things that help you do something faster.” 

For example, if you email a colleague about getting coffee, perhaps Gmail’s AI pops up a recommendation for a local cafe and puts it on your Google Calendar. To me, it sounds like turning Gmail into a personal assistant or a digital librarian for my life. It’s still some form of managing an endless archive of my life, but maybe that’s just what email is now. Perhaps we can’t reinvent the inbox — just make it less horrible to manage.

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