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Nervous System: The April Fools' Prank That Changed the World

David Kalat

April 3, 2023

Google’s reputation for April Fools’ Day jokes inclined many to assume the 2004 announcement of Gmail was yet another gag. In later interviews, Sergey Brin said the best form of an April Fools’ prank would be to debut something that sounded so crazy it had to be a joke, and then let it sink in that the service was real and here to stay.

Google’s April 1, 2004, announcement of a new webmail service was widely construed at the time as a facetious joke. The news release seemed unusually casually written and coincided with ridiculous job postings for a research and development site Google allegedly planned to open on the Moon. The announcement promised an unprecedented set of features, including a then-staggering gigabyte of storage coupled with full-text searchability.

As we now know, of course, this was no joke, and it heralded a significant transformation in email accessibility and usage.

The ability to communicate through “electronic mail” had existed since the 1970s. The transition from email as a specialized service used by a select group of people under certain circumstances to a ubiquitous form of communication used by the masses took decades. This shift occurred in part as internet connectivity itself expanded from specialty access to mass acceptance, but the advent of webmail as a preferred form of email access was a critical step. The first webmail client was developed at CERN in 1994. By 1996 the public had access to Hotmail (whose name was derived from an effort to pronounce “HTML”). Hotmail and other webmail services that emerged in its wake offered an important pivot away from something rooted to an installed software client, and toward the freedom of being able to communicate from any web browser. But this transition was slowed by early limitations in the way webmail could operate, including storage caps, clunky interfaces, and unfriendly designs. At the start of the twenty-first century, even the most generous webmail providers capped usage at a mere handful of megabytes, obliging users to spend valuable time curating their accounts to prune unneeded messages.

Gmail had its roots in a personal project by engineer Paul Buchheit. In the late 1990s, Buchheit developed a web-based email service for his own use, run from a server that sat on his desk. A key feature of Buchheit’s personal webmail was its search engine, which facilitated random access to old communications based on keywords.

When Google decided to develop a commercial webmail service, Buchheit’s project served as a prototype. Although some voices in the company were wary of straying from Google’s core product—its web search engine—those fears were allayed by thinking of Gmail as a new application for search tools.

Maximizing the value of searching email went hand in hand with allowing email boxes to swell with content. The search function gained value the more there was to search. Google offered Gmail users a full gigabyte of storage—hundreds of times more data than even the top competitor. The decision to allow such storage volume would give runway for the search tools to show off what they could do for productivity.

The engineers who worked with Buchheit on turning his personal pet into a commercial product used themselves as test cases. Google’s staff were such heavy users of email, they figured they were pioneers of an email culture that would eventually catch up with them. A product that served their needs now would suit a future clientele.

In addition to the storage space and search tools, another selling point of the new webmail service was its implementation of a new approach to website coding. Traditionally, webpages built with HTML required the browser to download the entire page from the web server in order to display any changes. Reloading a page meant painstakingly downloading the entire content over the available connections of the day. In an effort to alleviate these irritations, web designers started implementing tags within pages that could allow selected elements to be loaded asynchronously without disturbing the rest of the page. Although the term Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) would not be used publicly for another year, Google’s engineers built the webmail using interactive code that allowed the browser to download and insert updated data into an existing structure. This meant the page could display new incoming messages as they arrived.

At first, the company lacked the server infrastructure to offer a gigabyte’s webmail storage to unlimited users, so the product was restricted to an invitation-only rollout that began on April 1, 2004. This early limitation gave those with Gmail addresses a certain social cachet, a sign of status. In 2007, once Google had sufficient data centers in place, Gmail became available to the masses. By that point the storage limit had been increased to 4 GB.

Google’s reputation for April Fool’s Day jokes inclined many in the press to assume the 2004 announcement of Gmail was yet another gag. According to later interviews, Sergey Brin thought the best form of an April Fool’s prank would be to debut something that sounded so crazy it had to be a joke, and then let it sink in that the service was real and was here to stay.

In the years since then, the features that once made Gmail seem so unlikely have become expected standards across the webmail industry. From storage space to searchability to AJAX-powered interactivity, the once revolutionary release has become part of the wallpaper of digital life.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, position, or policy of Berkeley Research Group, LLC or its other employees and affiliates.


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