An ad for Google's Gmail appears on the side of a bus on Sept. 17, 2012, in Lagos, Nigeria. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin unveiled Gmail 20 years ago on April Fool's Day. (AP)News 

Gmail transformed email two decades ago, with many initially mistaking it for an April Fools’ prank by Google.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google, were known for their love of pranks and began introducing outrageous ideas on April Fool’s Day shortly after starting their company over 25 years ago. One year, Google advertised a job opportunity for a research center on the moon named after Copernicus. In another instance, the company announced plans to introduce a “scratch and sniff” feature on its search engine.

The jokes were so consistently over the top that people learned to laugh at them as another example of Google being bad. And so Page and Brin decided to reveal something that no one thought was possible 20 years ago on April Fool’s Day.

It was Gmail, a free service that offers 1 gigabyte of storage per account. The amount sounds almost pedestrian in the era of the one terabyte iPhone. But it sounded like an insane amount of email capacity at the time, enough to store about 13,500 emails before running out of space, when Yahoo and Microsoft’s leading webmail services at the time only held 30-60 emails. This increased email storage by 250-500 times.

In addition to the big leap in storage space, Gmail also featured Google’s search technology, which allows users to quickly retrieve a piece of old email, a photo, or other personal information stored on the service. It also automatically concatenated threads on the same topic, so everything flowed together as if it were one conversation.

“The original pitch we put together was about the three S’s — storage, search and speed,” said former Google executive Marissa Mayer, who helped design Gmail and other company products before becoming Yahoo’s CEO.

It was such a catchy idea that soon after The Associated Press published a story about Gmail late in the afternoon on April Fool’s Day 2004, readers began calling and emailing to tell the news outlet that it had been duped by Google pranksters.

“That was part of the charm, making a product that people don’t think is real. It kind of changed people’s perception of what applications were possible inside a web browser,” former Google engineer Paul Buchheit recalled in a recent AP interview about his efforts to build Gmail.

It took three years to make as part of a project called “Caribou” — a reference to the Dilbert cartoon run. “There was something absurd about the name Caribou, it just made me laugh,” said Buchheit, the 23rd employee to be hired at the company, which now employs more than 180,000 people.

The AP knew Google wasn’t kidding Gmail because an AP reporter had been asked out of the blue to come from San Francisco to its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to see something that would make the trip worthwhile.

Arriving at the still-developing corporate campus that soon blossomed into the “Googleplex,” an AP reporter was ushered into a small office where Page wore a wicked grin as he sat in front of his laptop.

Page, who was just 31 at the time, showed off Gmail’s elegantly designed inbox and showed how fast it ran on Microsoft’s now-retired Explorer browser. And he pointed out that the main control window didn’t have a delete button because it wouldn’t be necessary because Gmail has so much storage and it was so easy to search. “I think people are really going to like this,” Page predicted.

As with so many things, Page was right. Gmail now has an estimated 1.8 billion active accounts, each of which now offers 15 gigabytes of free storage with Google Photos and Google Drive. While that’s 15 times more storage than Gmail originally offered, it’s still not enough for many users, who rarely see the need to clear their accounts, as Google hoped.

The digital hoarding of emails, photos and other content is why Google, Apple and other companies are now making money by selling more storage capacity in their data centers. (In Google’s case, it charges from $30 a year for 200 gigabytes of storage to $250 a year for 5 terabytes of storage). The existence of Gmail is also the reason why other free email services and the internal email accounts that employees use for work offer much more storage than was thought 20 years ago.

“We were trying to change people’s mindset because people were working in this model of storage scarcity for so long that deletion became the default,” Buchheit said.

Gmail was a game-changer in many other ways, while becoming the first building block in the expansion of Google’s Internet empire beyond the still-dominant search engine.

After Gmail came Google Maps and Google Docs with their word processing and spreadsheet programs. Then came the acquisition of the YouTube video site, followed by the introduction of the Chrome browser and the Android operating system that powers most of the world’s smartphones. With Gmail’s clear intention to scan email content to better understand user interests, Google also left no doubt that digital surveillance aimed at selling more ads would be part of its expanding ambitions.

Although Gmail created an immediate buzz, it launched in a limited space because Google initially only had enough computing power to support a small number of users.

“When we launched, we only had 300 machines and they were really old machines that nobody else wanted,” Buchheit said with a laugh. “We only had enough capacity for 10,000 users, which is a bit absurd.”

But that scarcity created an air of exclusivity around Gmail, fueling feverish demand for hard-to-detect invitations to join. At one point, invitations to open a Gmail account sold for $250 each on eBay. “It became a bit of a social currency where people would say, ‘Hey, I got a Gmail invite, do you want one?'” Buchheit said.

Although signing up for Gmail became easier when Google’s network of massive data centers came online, the company didn’t start accepting all users coming to the email service until it opened the doors as a Valentine’s Day gift to the world in 2007.

A few weeks later, on April Fool’s Day in 2007, Google announced a new feature called “Gmail Paper”, which offers users the ability to have Google print their email archive from “post-consumer organic soybean sputum” and then send it. to them through the postal service. Google was really joking back then.

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