Editor’s Picks

Gmail Launched 15 Years Ago Today–With A Lot of April Fool’s Day Skepticism

By Cait Etherington
April 05, 2019

It is now difficult to imagine life without Gmail. As of 2018, Gmail had over 1.5 billion active users, which topples the numbers of any other email service provider. While 2018 numbers aren’t available for Outlook (the service that eventually subsumed the once wildly popular Hotmail), back in 2014, Outlook only had an estimated 400 million active users after years of more or less flat growth. Given Gmail’s current dominance, it may come as s surprise than when the email service launched fifteen years ago today on April 1, 2004, most people thought Gmail was a joke.

Initial Reactions

An article published in WIRED on April 1, 2004 reported that despite Google’s effort to widely publicize the launch of their new email service, many people thought the new service was just an April Fools Day prank. The report, which was actually part of a longer column on several real April Fools Day hoaxes, explained:

“Google’s much-lauded announcement of a soon-to-be-launched free e-mail service called Gmail generated widespread speculation online as to whether the offering is a hoax. While the announcement received voluminous media attention, skeptics looked to the wording of Google’s press release, which says the service provides a gigabyte of free storage, ‘quickly recalls any message an account owner has ever sent or received’ and ‘can already be used to read and send e-mail in most languages (even Klingon.)’

A Google spokesman confirmed that the free e-mail offering is not a hoax. Boese, of the Museum of Hoaxes, said the e-mail offering didn’t sound like a prank.”

What struck most internet users as suspicious was Google’s promised 1gb of free storage, which was considered a massive amount of free storage at the time. After all, it was promising to offer 500 times the amount of free storage offered by its closest competitor, Hotmail. At a time when people frequently had to delete old emails to continue using their accounts, Google’s promised 1 gb of free storage had widespread appeal.

Why the Real Fools Were Us–Gmail’s Users

If Google’s free giveaway struck many users as a too-good-to-be-true offer back in 2004, it is only because most people didn’t yet understand what tech companies have to gain by launching the free service.

First, Google gained by initially using Gmail to also deliver targeted advertisements to users. For example, if you sent an email querying about a private school, next thing you knew, five emails advertising private schools would pop up in your inbox. Not surprisingly, not everyone loved this idea. In fact, Google was soon being attacked by everyone from consumers to state senators about this perceived invasion of privacy.

Second, by moving millions of users over to Gmail, Google gained something else that would ultimately prove far more valuable: user data. As stated on Google’s user terms page, “When you sign up for a Google Account, you provide us with personal information. If are you signed in, we collect and protect information you create when using our services.” This can include emails you write and receive on Gmail. But exactly what is Google do with our emails?

The data Google derives from our email activities and other Google-driven activities, including searches, primarily is used to help build better Google products. So, in a sense, even if the accounts are free, we’re giving Google something highly valuable in exchange for this access and have been for the past fifteen years.

But as reported in the Wall Street Journal last Spring, like Facebook, Google also permits third-party access to Gmail accounts under some conditions. In fact, most people are entirely unaware that there are third-party entities with access to their Gmail accounts (to find out who you may be inadvertently sharing your data with, visit Google’s security page and scroll down to “Third-party apps with account access”).

Given that well over 1 billion people worldwide have a Gmail account and are not only sharing their data with Google but, in many cases, with third-party apps, who are the real fools in this scenario? Sadly, the real fools in this case is anyone who decided to sign up for a Gmail account, and at this point, most of us are travelers on this overcrowded ship of fools.

Photo by Jay Wennington on Unsplash.