The feeling of “ugh” often blankets our minds when ads interrupt our experience on any social media platform or other Internet services. These ads can be invasive, annoying, and creepy at times. They thrive on our data and often make us give in to our consumerist weaknesses (read “buy stuff we do not really need, but which we saw and so…”).

gmail story

Ads sound pure evil, right? Something the Devil himself may have created to not only invade our privacy but also to burn a hole in our already shallow pockets. All right, so that is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the gist. So what if we tell you that it is because of these ads that we are able to use one of the most popular and efficient emailing systems ever developed?

Yes, it is true.

A gig of storage…but who will fund it?

It had been years since Paul Buchheit was working on a secret project at Google. Codenamed Caribou, the project’s prototype version, was already being used and tested by some of the company’s leaders. And it was working well.

The confidential project that Buchheit was working on was an email platform from Google– Gmail. But the idea of creating a new email platform when the likes of Hotmail and Yahoo Mail already existed and were very popular had raised many queries and concerns. To top this off, there was a rumor going around that this new email service by Google would offer a massive 1 GB storage capacity, which was completely unheard of in those days. After all, it was 500 times more than what Microsoft was offering with Hotmail.

[believe tech or not] happy birthday, gmail… and yes, thank you, ads! - paul buchheit
Paul Buchheit

The idea was revolutionary and had the potential to decimate any other email service that crossed its path. But there was one simple but major problem: the search giant was unable to think of a way to make this project self-sufficient so that it would not potentially drain billions of Dollars out of Google.

Adding ads? Marrisa has doubts, “Don’t be evil” Buchheit has none

Buchheit had a slightly unorthodox solution to this as well: Ads! But Marissa Mayer (oh yes, she was at Google at that time), who was overseeing the project thought the idea to put ads on email was “downright creepy,” for all the reasons that we pointed out at the very beginning of this story. Buchheit’s solution to the problem did seem a little devilish which was ironic because he was the person who came up with Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto, but it did have the ability to make Gmail happen and deliver the 1 GB storage that the company was promising without emptying the company’s vaults.

Mayer mentions thinking, “it was going to be terrible” and had told Buchheit in so many words that the idea was a no-go. “When I walked out the door, I stopped for a minute and I said, ‘So Paul, we agreed we are not exploring the whole ad thing now, right?’ and he said, ‘Yup, right’”, Mayer recalled.

Ad-vantage, ads!

While the conversation may have been sincere, the agreement only lasted for a couple of hours. Buchheit had his mind set on the fact that bringing ads on Gmail was the only way to make the service work. And to change his boss’s mind, he worked all night that night to show just how it would work.

[believe tech or not] happy birthday, gmail… and yes, thank you, ads! - gmail ads
Image: Time Magazine

The next morning when Mayer checked her email, she saw one of her friends had sent her an invitation to go hiking. And right next to it appeared an ad for hiking boots. Then there was an email invitation to see Al Gore speak at Stanford. And what do you know, an ad for Gore’s new book lurked quietly in the corner of her screen. She then realized that Buchheit had worked all night to build and add the feature to the mail service. But before she could confront him (and perhaps turn it down), Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had also seen the new addition and had given it a thumbs up already.

April 1, 2004: 1 GB of storage, and it is not a joke

17 years ago, on April 1, 2004, Google launched Gmail to a limited group of a thousand invitees. The fact that it was launched on April Fool’s Day made many brush the idea off as a mere prank – “1 GB of storage? Yeah, right. Check the date!” To many more, the concept seemed outrageous. Criticism poured in as many did not like the fact that the service was targeting them. The California state senator at the time Liz Figueroa, even went so farwent so far as to tell Google that Gmail was a “disaster of enormous proportions, for yourself and for all of your customers.

Little did she know that the service would become a rage once it got into the hands of the users. It was not long after it was launched that the free invite to create a Gmail account was selling for $150 on eBay. And in due course, it changed email as we know it, and is pretty much now synonymous with email. The competitors that many had said would not let it settle have been left miles behind.

Buchheit’s hard work and obstinacy to make it work paid off, as Gmail is the most popular email service now, with over 1.5 billion accounts. Yes, it meant going behind your boss’s back, working on building what you believe in, and breaking the rules a little.

Belated Happy birthday, Gmail. You certainly added a lot to our digital lives.

Pun totally intended.

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