Friday, October 21, 2005
It's difficult to pin down the exact origin of email, but in October 1971, an engineer named Ray Tomlinson chose the '@' symbol for email addresses and wrote software to send the first network email.
At the time, it must not have seemed very important – nobody bothered to save that first message or even record the exact date. I've always thought that it would be fun to witness a little bit of history like that – to be there when something important happened. That's part of what drove me to join a little no-name startup named Google, and it's why I was excited when I was given a chance to create a new email product, now called Gmail.
Of course that wasn't the only reason why I wanted to build Gmail. I rely on email, a lot, but it just wasn't working for me. My email was a mess. Important messages were hopelessly buried, and conversations were a jumble; sometimes four different people would all reply to the same message with the same answer because they didn't notice the earlier replies. I couldn't always get to my email because it was stuck on one computer, and web interfaces were unbearably clunky. And I had spam. A lot of it. With Gmail I got the opportunity to change email – to build something that would work for me, not against me.
We had a lot of ideas, but first we spent a lot of time talking to all kinds of people about their email. They let us watch over their shoulders and helped us really understand how they use email and what they need from it. We didn't want to simply bolt new features onto old interfaces. We needed to rethink email, but at the same time we needed to respect that email already had over 30 years of history, thousands of existing programs, and nearly a billion users. So we started by learning which features were most important, and which problems were most aggravating. We also realized that solving everyone's problems was too big of a challenge for the first release. It would be better to build a product that a lot of people love, than one that everyone tolerates, and so that was our goal.
On April 1, 2004, we rolled out the first release of Gmail. It immediately became known for giving away 1000 MB of storage, while the others only offered 4 MB, as they had for many years. We didn't do that just for the attention (although we certainly got our share). It's just part of our philosophy. We always want to do as much as we can for our users, and so if we can make something free, we will.
But storage was only the most obvious difference, and our other improvements were just as important. Gmail included a quick and accurate search. It introduced powerful new concepts to organize email, such as the conversation view (so now I can finally see all those replies at once). It provided a fast and dynamic interface from web browsers everywhere, popularizing the techniques that have since become known as AJAX.
This interface included many important features not commonly found on the web at that time, such as email address auto-completion, a slick spell-checker, keyboard shortcuts, and pages that update instantly. It included a smart spam filter to get rid of junk mail. Finally, we made an important new promise: you can keep your Gmail address and all of your email, even if you someday decide that Gmail is not for you. Cell phone owners already have the right to keep their old phone number when switching to a new provider, and you should have that same freedom with email. To ensure this freedom, Gmail provides, for free, both email forwarding and POP download of all your mail. Many services are now beginning to include other Gmail innovations; we hope that some day they will also be willing to include this one.
Of course, the launch was just the beginning, and we're still busy improving Gmail. We keep increasing free storage (2656 MB and counting), we offer the interface in 38 languages, and we now have features such as auto-save drafts, so that you don't accidentally lose that half-written message. We know that Gmail isn’t quite right for everyone yet. We’re working on that too – there’s still more we can do for the folder-lovers and devout-deleters out there. But wait, there’s more! :) We also have a new batch of exciting innovations on the way that we hope will shake things up again and make Gmail even better for even more people.
I'm proud of what we've done so far, and am excited about our future plans for Gmail. So celebrate how far email has come by joining its fun future.