From Wow to Ouch! 20 Years of Gmail

By Raj N Chandra Shekhar

It was on an All Fools’ Day two decades ago that Google first made the announcement about its new email service. What caught one’s attention was the massive 1GB of storage it promised in an era where 15MB was a luxury and all of this absolutely free. Working across timezones, my boss was excited to say the least, in spite of it being a competitive product. 

However, soon enough we knew that it was no prank as Google began beta testing Gmail and invites began going out. To get one was considered special and so it was that my boss was at his chirpy best on our regular evening call. However, when one asked for an invite (you could send out a 100 invites from your account), the boss said he didn’t have any as the entire office had already cornered it the previous night. 

So, the search for an invite continued and eventually culminated when a friend and former colleague settled in the Silicon Valley bought one off Amazon and shared an invite. Of course, it wasn’t as much about needing another email than to compare it with Yahoo Mail and Hotmail – the choice of millions those days. 

Of course, my boss continued to be dramatic about the new email service from Google, which was growing into a search monster those days. That we had a free version of the paid AOL mail because we were employed by them, didn’t seem to reduce his enthusiasm over Gmail leading to a prediction that it would revolutionize electronic mail. 

Though some of us stared incredulously at him for making such a bold prediction when Google’s entry into email was the last among the internet giants of yore, the boss was steadfast. Last night, we spoke and he very casually reminded me of his prediction and I had to acquiesce that he was indeed right about how Gmail would pervade our lives like none of the email services had done before. 

For starters, the service is said to have over 1.2 billion users and is practically a passport to anything on the internet today, something that one doesn’t approve of, but is forced to accept. Of course, both of us did agree that Gmail’s growth over twenty years has resulted in a carnivore that has eaten into our privacy in multiple ways. 

For starters, managing the inbox has become tough as every day one is left clearing spam and marking them so Google doesn’t send them over to flood our inbox. And what was once absolutely free now comes with limitations of space with Google making more money each time one feels like storing more and more of our digital stuff. 

The advent of Google chat, Google Meet and Google Drive turned Gmail into some sort of a passport for our daily dose of internet. Though other messaging apps have come up and Microsoft has turned to collaborative work tools with a vengeance,  Gmail remains that one personal mail ID that older folks do not want to let go of.  

Does it mean that there is no end to Gmail in our lives? I mean most of us who had Yahoo and Hotmail IDs are highly unlikely to remember its passwords now. Depends on how one looks at it. As a user, I recalled the free storage as a big advantage that’s now been whittled down considerably. But, Google saw it as a means to use its smart search algorithms to pry into our emails and offer suggestions that brought in more clicks and sales and dollars. 

Somewhere Gmail (and Google) lost its innocence. But, when Gmail launched, the search function was something we all loved as it simplified the task of finding the “right” mail quicker than one could say Google. In fact, Gmail also encouraged us to retain older emails (I have stuff from the first day I started using it) and this resulted in a growing need for more inbox space and hence more money for Google. 

Having covered these two facets, Gmail has come up with incremental innovations that were at worst cosmetic and at best showy.  Of course, the company added storage space to 15GB and went mobile first back in the mid-2000s besides adding priorities, smart replies (which sometimes appear anything but smart), summary cards and a single-click button to unsubscribe to newsletters – that is those that you can’t recall signing up for. 

That your Gmail was signing up instead wasn’t lost on many of us, but we accepted this as yet another cross that customers have to bear so the service provider turns into a behemoth. Which is where the biggest problem springs from – in spite of all these changes, Gmail remains much the same. 

No! One isn’t talking about looks but in how it tackles communication around the web. Maybe it’s not its sole fault as hardly any disruptive changes have pervaded this sector and Google did its best to maintain the status quo. Maybe, a bit of it is also due to the quality of its supporting apps such as Google Chat which has long made way for smarter options such as Slack and WhatsApp. 

Moreover, communication isn’t now limited to emails and several other social platforms have come in and changed the way we interact with each other. Once attachments could be sent only via email, today, it’s a simple drag and drop feature available on multiple social chat apps. Keeping documents online was once achieved via email, today it can be stored on the cloud via Google Drive, Microsoft One or Apple Cloud. 

There are options for collaborative work like never before and email is being fast reduced to just one of the many tools available in this suite. From Google’s own point of view, one can easily create on Google Docs, Google Sheets or Google Slides and collaborate without as much as opening our Gmail. 

Maybe Gmail won’t be the same in another two decades. Till then we can celebrate the innovation that Google came up with to make email simpler than opening a can while also mourning the loss of innocence that resulted in the mail application losing our trust in the intervening years. 



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