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Google's latest April Fool's joke that turned out to be true

Google's latest April Fool's joke that turned out to be true

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin loved pulling pranks, so much so that they began coming up with outlandish ideas every April Fools' Day shortly after founding their company more than a quarter century ago.

One year, Google announced a job opening for the Copernicus Research Center on the Moon. Another year, the company said it plans to launch a “scrape and sniff” feature on its search engine.

The jokes were so over the top that people learned to laugh at them as another example of the harm caused by Google. That's why Page and Brin decided to reveal something that no one would have believed 20 years ago, on April Fool's Day.

That was Gmail, a free service with 1GB of storage per account, an amount that seems almost normal in the age of terabyte iPhones.

But at the time it seemed like a ridiculous amount of email capacity, enough to store about 13,500 emails before running out of space, compared to just 30 to 60 emails on the leading webmail services of the time operated by Yahoo and Microsoft. This translates to 250 to 500 times more email storage space.

In addition to the quantum leap in storage, Gmail is also equipped with Google Search technology so users can quickly retrieve details from an old email, photo, or other personal information stored on the service.

It also automatically links a series of communications on the same topic so that everything flows together as if it were one conversation.

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“The original proposal we came up with was centered around the three Cs: storage, search and speed,” said Marissa Mayer, a former Google executive who helped design Gmail and other company products before becoming CEO of Yahoo.

The concept was so mind-boggling that shortly after the Associated Press published a story about Gmail in the late afternoon of April 1, 2004, readers began calling and emailing to tell the news outlet that they had been scammed by Google scammers. .

“That was part of the magic, making a product that people didn't believe was real. That kind of changed people's perception of the kinds of applications that were possible in a web browser,” former Google engineer Paul Bouchette recalled during a recent interview with the AP about his efforts. To create Gmail.

It took three years to produce as part of a project called “Caribou” – a reference to a joke in the Dilbert comic strip. “There was something silly about the name Caribou,” said Bouchette, the 23rd employee hired at a company that now employs more than 180,000 people. “It made me laugh.”

The AP learned that Google wasn't kidding about Gmail because an Associated Press reporter was suddenly asked to drive from San Francisco to the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, to see something that would make the trip worth it.

After arriving at the company's still-developing campus that would soon become what became known as the “Googleplex,” an Associated Press reporter was escorted into a small office where Page wore a sly smile as he sat in front of his laptop.

Page, who was just 31 years old, showed off his sleekly designed Gmail inbox and demonstrated how quickly it worked in Microsoft's now-discontinued Explorer browser.

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He pointed out that there is no delete button in the main control window because it would not be necessary given that Gmail has a large storage space and can be searched easily. “I think people are going to really like this,” Paige predicted.

As with many other things, Page was right. Gmail now has about 1.8 billion active accounts — each offering 15GB of free storage along with Google Photos and Google Drive.

Although the storage space is 15 times more than what Gmail initially offered, it's still not enough for many users who rarely see the need to clean up their accounts, just as Google had hoped.

The digital accumulation of emails, photos and other content is why Google, Apple and other companies make money by selling extra storage capacity in their data centers. The existence of Gmail is also the reason why other free email services and the internal email accounts that employees use at their jobs offer much more storage space than anyone realized 20 years ago.

“We were trying to change the way people think because they had been operating on this storage shortage model for so long that deletion became a default,” Bouchette said.

Gmail was a turning point in several other respects, while also becoming the first building block in expanding Google's online empire beyond its still dominant search engine.

After Gmail came Google Maps and Google Docs along with word processing and spreadsheet applications. Then came the acquisition of the video site YouTube, followed by the launch of the Chrome browser and the Android operating system, which powers most smartphones in the world.

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And with Gmail's openly stated intention to analyze email content to gain a better understanding of users' interests, Google has also left little doubt that digital surveillance in its quest to sell more advertising will be part of its expansion ambitions.

Although it immediately caused a sensation, Gmail started out with a limited scope because Google initially only had enough computing power to support a small audience of users.

“When we launched the project, we only had 300 machines, and they were so old that no one wanted them,” Bouchette said with a laugh. “We only had enough capacity for 10,000 users, which is a bit ridiculous.”

But this scarcity has created an air of exclusivity around Gmail that has generated a feverish demand for sign-up invitations. At one point, invitations to open a Gmail account were selling for $250 each on eBay. “It's become a social currency where people say, 'Hey, I got a Gmail invitation, do you want one?'” Bouchette said.

Although signing up for Gmail became increasingly easier as more of Google's massive network of data centers came online, the company didn't start accepting all visitors to the email service until it opened the gates as a Valentine's Day gift to the world in 2007.

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