Reports indicate Google is planning to roll out a suite of services specifically targeting young users.
Google is working on versions of its services, such as YouTube and Gmail, that are specifically outfitted for children.
Currently, Google services are technically only meant for persons over the age of 13 years. Users attempting to create a new Google account are asked to enter their birthday, in addition to other information like username and password. Those under the age limit are directed to a page explaining Google’s policy and linking to the Federal Trade Commission’s web page on child privacy.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Google’s new child-approved services will allow parents to control how their children interact with Google’s products and what information the search giant collects from their child’s activity. The Information previously reported that a version of YouTube featuring beefed up parental controls was in development.
Google currently limits its services to an older age group because the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires parental consent before a child’s data can be collected, and restricts how that data can be used and stored. While web sites are not liable if underage users lie about their age, a person familiar with Google’s plans told the Journal that demand from parents who want to create accounts for their children and a desire to remain in compliance with COPPA spurred the company to act.
Another reason for kid-centric services could be a desire by Google to break into the lucrative education market. The company’s Chromebooks are low-cost laptops that might be attractive to schools, but the products are entirely based around Google services. A child-suite of Google apps might make Chromebooks a viable alternative to the iPad among educators interested in introducing technology into the classroom.
Some privacy advocates are not particularly thrilled by the prospect of more children making Google accounts. Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, told the Journal the new services could threaten the privacy of millions of children, and that his organization had already shared its concerns with the Federal Trade Commission.
Gmail made it easier than ever to unsubscribe from unwanted email lists sent by retailers that somehow got hold of your email address. So go on, unsubscribe. Marketers won't mind (much).
This week, a message posted by Google + explained that a change at Gmail makes it quicker and easier to unsubscribe from unwanted email lists. “Sometimes you end up subscribed to lists that are no longer relevant to you, and combing through an entire message looking for a way to unsubscribe is no fun,” the note stated. To simplify things and save users time, Gmail is now automatically putting an “Unsubscribe” button at the top of the email, just to the right of the sender’s email address. Click it and those annoying emails you’re tired of deleting will soon go away (in theory at least).
Google made the case that the “unsubscribe option easy to find is a win for everyone. For email senders, their mail is less likely to be marked as spam and for you, you can now say goodbye to sifting through an entire message for that one pesky link.”
Not everyone is viewing the change in quite the same win-win light, however. Adweek described the Unsubscribe button as potentially “a huge blow to email marketers” because making it easier for people to unsubscribe will naturally result in more people unsubscribing. That means fewer people getting the messages of retailers, activist groups, and others that are constantly seeking ways to bolster their ranks of email list subscribers.
So this is awful for the retailers that rely on such lists to spread the word about new products and deals and thereby boost sales, right? Well, not necessarily. One email marketing expert told InternetRetailer.com that there’s an upside to the change at Gmail. On the one hand, yes, putting the Unsubscribe option in a more prominent position will put the idea into the heads of more subscribers and cause subscriber numbers to shrink. But Chad White, lead research analyst at the email marketing firm ExactTarget, said that the people who will utilize the quick Unsubscribe option are problematic subscribers to begin with. They’re the consumers who are most likely to complain about the emails and/or the company, and they’re more apt to categorize the emails as spam. Reporting an email as spam to Gmail is worse for the sender than unsubscribing, as it damages the sender’s reputation in the eyes of email providers.
“While marketers don’t want people to unsubscribe, that may be a better option than them hitting delete without reading an e-mail or hitting the Spam button,” said White. “This is the least bad option because it doesn’t hurt the sender’s reputation.”
Gmail’s Unsubscribe option has actually been around, but flying under the radar, for a few months. It was only just this week that the company introduced and explained it in a big public way. The development follows the much more significant innovation at Gmail last summer, when the service introduced a system categorizing emails into separate boxes for one’s Social, Promotions, and Primary messages. Retailers and marketers worried (and still worry) that the system segregates Promotions into an easy-to-ignore folder.
Yet as with the Unsubscribe button, some think there is an upside to Gmail’s categorization system. When the Gmail categories were introduced, Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru told us via email, “The segregation could actually be helpful because people can quickly scan in one place things that may/may not be relevant without having to hunt for personal emails in a sea of mixed clutter.” She also argued that the category system could help marketers reach a much more targeted audience, providing “a ‘destination’ for people that’s not unlike getting a pile of Sunday circulars.”
Now that it’s easier to unsubscribe, marketers can assume that the people who remain subscribed are more of a core group that find the messages relevant and appealing. In other words: They’re really great customers. “There are actually people who love marketing emails–that’s the reason they still stay subscribed to email lists in the first place,” said Mulpuru. “It’s very opt-in and self-selected.”
The judge says the law already supports giving investigators access to documents simply to determine whether they're warrantable or not.
A New York federal judge ruled on Friday that prosecutors have a legal right to access Gmail-based emails in criminal probes that involve money laundering, a sharp turnaround from previous rulings in comparable cases and an alarm bell for privacy advocates.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein said that his decision was based on a law already on the books that allows investigators to seize documents–which Gorenstein interpreted as including emails–to determine whether data should be subject to a warrant, Reuters reports.
The big question is what happens if a user’s email account doesn’t yield any information that would justify a legal warrant, and how much public support lies behind the idea of privileging high profile investigations over personal privacy.
Don't let the stress of a flooded inbox hold you back
Your email inbox is the nerve center of your professional life. It’s your Rolodex, information repository, and primary means of communication with contacts and colleagues all wrapped into one.
But too often, just like the physical in-bin on your desk, your email inbox can get piled high with unorganized messages. When you’re confronted with a jumble of disordered memos and random dispatches every time you check your work email, you waste valuable moments just trying to locate the information you’re seeking out.
Plus, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by not enabling your inbox to perform in prime condition. A clean, uncluttered inbox can do more than receive and categorize newsletters and notes; it can amp up your contact database, streamline your to-do list, and more.
The thing is, thanks to a few cool apps and plugins, you can actually turbo-charge your email power on the cheap. Here are six tools that will keep your inbox spic-and-span and optimized for professional powerhouse status.
Any Email Provider
Do you have the same bad habit I do of keeping emails you’ve already read in your inbox as a reminder for an action item? Or maybe you obsessively file emails away into folders, only to forget when you need to follow up since they’re not readily available in your inbox. Enter FollowUp.cc (available for Apple Mail, Gmail, Outlook, Hotmail, Yahoo!, and AOL), which lets you forward your emails into the future to remind yourself to, well, follow up.
You just CC or BCC a email@example.com email address, like “firstname.lastname@example.org,” and when the day arrives, the email will reappear at the top of your inbox. You can even schedule regular email reminders to say, order flowers for your mom before Thanksgiving, using email@example.com.
You probably spend almost as much time checking your work email on your phone as you do on your computer. But your native smartphone email app has limitations, no matter your operating system. Give CloudMagic a try; available on iOS and Android, it’s an email client that also lets you complete work while you’re checking messages.
For example, right within the app, you can see Salesforce info for contacts, create a note within Evernote, save a link to Pocket, subscribe a contact to your MailChimp newsletter, and more. You’ll be amazing how much more productive your emailing on the go gets.
I’ve always wished Gmail’s built-in task manager was more robust. Taskforce addresses that need in a major way. It’s a productivity system, available for individuals and teams, that lets you slice and dice your emails into separate tasks in different workspaces, which are basically the equivalent of separate computer desktops that you can categorize however you’d like.
No more languishing emails, which lead to by-the-wayside follow-ups. No more to-dos that get lost in the sea of information. You can also tag teammates and colleagues in tasks, who will then be notified, making it easier for you to remind them how you divided up work in that confusingly long email thread.
4. Notes For Gmail
The aptly named Notes For Gmail lets you affix notes and tags to any email message. Don’t tell me you’ve never wished you could do that!
You can also pin notes to any email thread, or at the top of your sent-emails view, starred-emails view, or really anywhere else in your inbox. With a tool like this, you can turn your inbox into a personal CRM system.
You know a digital tool is working for you when you stop noticing its inclusion in your routine. Rapportive is one of those for me. It’s a free Chrome plugin that displays your contacts’ social networking information right inside your inbox.
You can connect with them on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter without even leaving Gmail, in addition to seeing a punch list of recent emails from them and recording private notes to attach to their addresses in your account (giving you a way to remember facts and information about them that will help build the relationship).
Like Gmail on steroids, Gmelius is a browser extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera that majorly boosts your Gmail experience with everything from a cleaned-up interface (no more ads!) to the ability to block email trackers to protect your privacy.
One of the most useful elements, from a work perspective, is the option to quickly categorize each email you receive or send using hashtags, which are much more easily searchable than Gmail’s built-in labels.. Another favorite feature is the automatic “Unsubscribe” button that replaces Gmail’s “Spam” button whenever Gmelius detects a mailing list.
What tools do you swear by to make your email inbox work better for you?
About the author: Allison Stadd (@AllisonStadd) works in marketing & communications and is also a freelance blogger, digital life coach, and social media consultant. She’s a fan of good books and good beer with equal enthusiasm, and when she’s not slinging tweets, pins, and posts, you’ll find her at the nearest concert hall.
Read more from The Muse:
Google’s naming and shaming rival email providers, pointing out Tuesday which of its competitors don’t fully encrypt users’ email. In a new section of its Transparency Report, Google identified the email providers that use an encryption protocol called Transport Layer Security (TLS), which makes it impossible for snoopers to view the content of a message as it’s being shuttled from one inbox to another.
Google says nearly half of emails sent between Gmail accounts and other email accounts aren’t fully encrypted because other companies haven’t implemented TLS.
“When you mail a letter to your friend, you hope she’ll be the only person who reads it,” Google wrote in a blog post. “Emails that are encrypted as they’re routed from sender to receiver are like sealed envelopes, and less vulnerable to snooping—whether by bad actors or through government surveillance—than postcards.”
According to Google’s data, nearly all of the messages sent from AOL, Yahoo and LinkedIn email accounts are encrypted as they travel to Gmail users. Microsoft’s Outlook.com encrypts more than 9 in 10 emails received from Gmail, but less than 9 in 10 sent to Gmail.
Some email providers with more lax security features are already taking action within hours of Google’s report. Comcast, which Google says encrypts less than 1% of emails sent to Gmail inboxes, told the Wall Street Journal that it plans to introduce better encryption “within a matter of weeks.”
Email providers have been under pressure to boost security for the past year due to ongoing revelations concerning the scope of surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency. Google is also testing a more powerful form of security, called end-to-end encryption, that it plans to eventually roll out to all Gmail users. With the service, the contents of an email would be nearly impossible for others to read not only when an email is in transit but also after it’s arrived in the recipient’s inbox. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has been a vocal advocate of end-to-end encryption.
“We recognize that this sort of encryption will probably only be used for very sensitive messages or by those who need added protection,” Google wrote on its security blog. “But we hope that the End-to-End extension will make it quicker and easier for people to get that extra layer of security should they need it.”
A world where everyone uses fully-encrypted emails would actually be a huge threat to Google’s business. If Google couldn’t scan its users’ messages, the company would no longer be able to generate huge revenues by showing relevant ads in users’ inboxes.
Use them to thwart spam, get organized or sign up for accounts without using your main address.+ READ ARTICLE
And that's just for starters: Google says it's planning similar changes for all its Google Apps customers, from business to government users and more.
Rejoice, ye matriculated and presently in-process-of-being-educated: Google announced on Wednesday that it would no longer ad-scan student Gmail accounts. That’s the process whereby Google’s purportedly blind algorithms rifle through your Gmail content to create you-flavored advertisements.
If a garden variety Gmail user emails something about liking a certain soft drink, for instance, chances are they’ll see a soda ad at some point or another. The presumption on Google’s part is that since it’s going to advertise to you one way or another, you might as well see stuff that’s more likely to matter to you than not.
But no more, if you’re a student, and that’s effectively the cherry on top of a pro-student dish Google’s been cobbling together for some time. In its blog post announcing the move, the company notes that “from day one” it’s turned off displaying ads by default in its Apps for Education service suite (that suite includes Gmail, Google Talk, Google Drive, Google Calendar and others). The company adds that last year, it removed ads from Google Search for K-12 users when signed in.
But those maneuvers didn’t preclude the company from scanning said services and compiling the data for future purposes — a controversial practice in its own right. Today’s move effectively pulls Google’s ad-related fingers out of Gmail for Apps for Education permanently, which — in Google’s own words — “means Google cannot collect or use student data in Apps for Education services for advertising purposes.”
What’s more, the company’s also permanently removing its “enabled/disable” toggle in the Apps for Education Administrator console. If, for whatever odd reason you wanted to enable ads before, you’ll no longer have that option: ads in Apps for Education will now be mandatorily disabled for good.
Better still, Google says these education-specific changes are just the tip of the iceberg, and that it’s planning comparable changes to all its Google Apps customers, from business to government to legacy users of the free version. While it’s a far cry from Google upending advertising across all strata of its products, it’s clearly a sea change, and presumably a welcome one across the spectrum. When should you expect the post-education modifications to kick in? Google says it’ll “provide an update when the rollout is complete.”
Sidebar: Education Week is taking credit for Google’s surprise move, writing that the company is “apparently bowing to pressure from a lawsuit and an Education Week-published report revealing the practice.” Education Week cites Google’s admission a month-and-a-half ago that it was scanning millions of Apps for Education students’ emails, and mentions a federal lawsuit currently in process whose plaintiffs claim Google’s been using Apps for Education to surreptitiously target-advertise to students.
With help from Gmail, Google+ photos finally get social.
My friends and family probably don’t know this, but I have photos of them on Google+ stretching all the way back to October 2011, when I bought a Samsung Galaxy S II and set up automatic photo backups.
These photos aren’t public, and the vast majority of them are visible to no one except me. That’s because I haven’t bothered to share them.
The reason is not complicated: Most of the people I know don’t actively use Google+, so sorting through and sharing my photos on Google’s social network would be a waste of time. Still, I auto-upload my photos anyway, using Google’s unlimited storage (for images of 2048 pixels or less) as a glorified backup service.
The recent addition of Google+ photo attachments in Gmail may be a sign that Google has recognized the fate of its own network. Instead of forcing people to share photos through Google+, Google is now letting Gmail users attach photos directly to their messages, using a new “Insert Photo” button at the bottom of the email. As a way of sharing photos I’ve snapped from my phone, it’s incredibly convenient.
I will be considerably more likely to share my auto-uploaded photos over email than Google+. Sharing images via email is more private, more convenient and less proprietary. I know my recipients won’t have to visit Google+ or even have a Gmail account to view the images I send. And on my end, I’ll no longer have to wade through the Google+ interface just to find a photo, download it and re-upload it again.
There are now more ways than ever to auto-upload photos to Google+. The latest version of Android includes a new “Photos” app, separate from the main Google+ app, that can automatically upload camera images. In December, Google released an auto-backup desktop app for Windows and Mac. And in October, the Google+ iOS app gained background uploads, allowing users to back up their photos without having to periodically re-open the app.
But without a good way to share those photos, users are essentially stuffing their pictures in a dusty closet, and Google is just wasting server space. By liberating automatic photo uploads from Google+, Gmail is making those photos more social than they ever were on Google’s social network.
Google's email breakthrough was almost three years in the making. But it wasn't a given that it would reach the public at all
If you wanted to pick a single date to mark the beginning of the modern era of the web, you could do a lot worse than choosing Thursday, April 1, 2004, the day Gmail launched.
Scuttlebutt that Google was about to offer a free email service had leaked out the day before: Here’s John Markoff of the New York Times reporting on it at the time. But the idea of the search kingpin doing email was still startling, and the alleged storage capacity of 1GB—500 times what Microsoft’s Hotmail offered—seemed downright implausible. So when Google issued a press release date-stamped April 1, an awful lot of people briefly took it to be a really good hoax. (Including me.)
Gmail turned out to be real, and revolutionary. And a decade’s worth of perspective only makes it look more momentous.
The first true landmark service to emerge from Google since its search engine debuted in 1998, Gmail didn’t just blow away Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, the dominant free webmail services of the day. With its vast storage, zippy interface, instant search and other advanced features, it may have been the first major cloud-based app that was capable of replacing conventional PC software, not just complementing it.
Even the things about Gmail that ticked off some people presaged the web to come: Its scanning of messages to find keywords that could be used for advertising purposes kicked off a conversation about online privacy that continues on to this day.
Within Google, Gmail was also regarded as a huge, improbable deal. It was in the works for nearly three years before it reached consumers; during that time, skeptical Googlers ripped into the concept on multiple grounds, from the technical to the philosophical. It’s not hard to envision an alternate universe in which the effort fell apart along the way, or at least resulted in something a whole lot less interesting.
“It was a pretty big moment for the Internet,” says Georges Harik, who was responsible for most of Google’s new products when Gmail was hatched. (The company called such efforts “Googlettes” at the time.) “Taking something that hadn’t been worked on for years but was central, and fixing it.”
It All Began With Search
Gmail is often given as a shining example of the fruits of Google’s 20 percent time, its legendary policy of allowing engineers to divvy off part of their work hours for personal projects. Paul Buchheit, Gmail’s creator, disabused me of this notion. From the very beginning, “it was an official charge,” he says. “I was supposed to build an email thing.”
He began his work in August 2001. But the service was a sequel of sorts to a failed effort that dated from several years before he joined Google in 1999, becoming its 23rd employee.
“I had started to make an email program before in, probably, 1996,” he explains. “I had this idea I wanted to build web-based email. I worked on it for a couple of weeks and then got bored. One of the lessons I learned from that was just in terms of my own psychology, that it was important that I always have a working product. The first thing I do on day one is build something useful, then just keep improving it.”
With Gmail–which was originally code-named Caribou, borrowing the name of a mysterious corporate project occasionally alluded to in Dilbert–the first useful thing Buchheit built was a search engine for his own email. And it did indeed take only a day to accomplish. His previous project had been Google Groups, which indexed the Internet’s venerable Usenet discussion groups: All he had to do was hack Groups’ lightning-fast search feature to point it at his mail rather than Usenet.
At first, Buchheit’s email search engine ran on a server at his own desk. When he sought feedback from other engineers, their main input was that it should search their mail, too. Soon, it did.
The fact that Gmail began with a search feature that was far better than anything offered by the major email services profoundly shaped its character. If it had merely matched Hotmail’s capacity, it wouldn’t have needed industrial-strength search. It’s tough, after all, to lose anything when all you’ve got is a couple of megabytes of space.
But serious search practically begged for serious storage: It opened up the possibility of keeping all of your email, forever, rather than deleting it frantically to stay under your limit. That led to the eventual decision to give each user 1GB of space, a figure Google settled on after considering capacities that were generous but not preposterous, such as 100MB.
“A lot of people thought it was a very bad idea, from both a product and a strategic standpoint.”Still, long before Google chose to give Gmail users 1GB of space, it had to decide that Gmail would be a commercial product at all. That wasn’t the no-brainer it might seem, even though Google had a maniacally email-centric culture itself.
In its early years, one of the defining things about the company was its obsessive focus on its search engine; that set it apart from Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and other search pioneers that had recast themselves as “portals,” expanding their ambitions to encompass everything from weather to sports to games to, yes, email. Portals had a reputation for doing many things, but not necessarily doing them all that well.
“A lot of people thought it was a very bad idea, from both a product and a strategic standpoint,” says Buchheit of his email project. “The concern was this didn’t have anything to do with web search. Some were also concerned that this would cause other companies such as Microsoft to kill us.”
Fortunately, the doubters didn’t include Google’s founders. “Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] were always supportive,” Buchheit says. “A lot of other people were much less supportive.”
Buchheit had been working on his project for a month or two when he was joined by another engineer, Sanjeev Singh, with whom he’d found social-networking startup FriendFeed after leaving Google in 2006. (FriendFeed was acquired by Facebook in 2009.) The Gmail team grew over time, but not exponentially; even when the service launched in 2004, only a dozen or so people were working on it.
Gmail’s first product manager, Brian Rakowski, learned about the service from his boss, Marissa Mayer, on his first day at Google in 2002, fresh out of college. (He’s still at Google today, where he currently works on Android.) What he saw got him excited, but it was still an exceptionally rough draft.
“It didn’t look anything like what Gmail does now or even what it looked like when it launched,” he says. “I was just graduated from school and was indoctrinated in usability tests and target users. I was pretty paranoid that Google engineers would love it and it wouldn’t appeal to the mass market. I agonized over it a lot.”
All along, though, Gmail’s creators were building something to please themselves, figuring that their email problems would eventually be everybody’s problems. “Larry said normal users would look more like us in 10 years’ time,” Rakowski says.
What Does Google Email Look Like?
Even in August of 2003, two years into the effort, Gmail had only the most rudimentary of front ends. That’s when another new Google recruit, Kevin Fox, was assigned to design the service’s interface. (After leaving Google, he reuinited with Buchheit and Singh at FriendFeed.)
Fox knew that Gmail needed to look Googley; the challenge was that it wasn’t entirely clear what that meant. The company didn’t yet offer an array of services: Other than the company’s eponymous search engine, one of the few other precedents Fox could draw inspiration from was Google News, which had debuted in September of 2002. But search and News were both websites. Gmail was going to be a web app.
“It was a fundamentally different kind of product,” he says. “Fortunately, they gave me lots of latitude to explore different design directions.” Fox aimed for something that took cues from both websites and desktop applications without mindlessly mimicking either. After three major passes on the design, he settled on the look that’s still very much recognizable in today’s version of Gmail.
Thinking of Gmail as an app rather than a site had technical implications, too. Hotmail and Yahoo Mail had originally been devised in the mid-1990s; they sported dog-slow interfaces written in plain HTML. Almost every action you took required the service to reload the entire web page, resulting in an experience that had none of the snappy responsiveness of a Windows or Mac program.
“We weren’t going to plaster it with banners. We committed to that from pretty early on.”Then there was Gmail’s business model. Some within Google advocated for it being a paid service, but Buchheit and others wanted the service to reach as many people as possible, which was an argument for it being free and supported by advertising. With other free email offerings of the time, that meant flashy graphical banner ads–the antithesis of the unobtrusive little text ads which, then as now, accompanied Google search results.
“We weren’t going to plaster [Gmail] with banners,” says Rakowski. “We committed to that from pretty early on.” Instead, Gmail got little text ads of its own, automatically keyed to words in the text of a user’s email. In an example Google used early on to explain the system, two ads for ticket agencies were displayed alongside a conversation that mentioned a Beach Boys concert.
As with other aspects of Gmail, it wasn’t a given that the plan to monetize it through text ads would work. “I remember trying to model out how valuable each user would be in terms of advertising,” remembers Rakowski. “We had no idea.”
Advertising wasn’t just a math problem. Other email services already scanned the text of incoming messages, to check for spam and viruses, for instance. But doing the same thing for advertising purposes was something new, and Google knew that some people might be creeped out by any tangible evidence that their messages had been read, even if the one doing the reading was a machine.
“We thought pretty hard before doing what we did,” says Harik. “We thought, is this thing a perceived privacy violation or a real one? We decided it would be an issue of perception.”
For much of its development, Gmail had been a skunkworks project, kept secret even from most people within Google. “It wasn’t even guaranteed to launch–we said that it has to reach a bar before it’s something we want to get out there,” says Fox.
By early 2004, however, Gmail worked, and almost everybody was using it to access the company’s internal email system. It was time to settle on a schedule for a public announcement. The date the company selected was April 1.
That wasn’t just another random day on the calendar. Google had begun its tradition of April Fools’ mischief in 2000; the company had a hoax in the works for 2004, involving an announcement that it was hiring for a new research center on the moon. It figured, correctly, that announcing Gmail at the same time would lead some people to think that the announcement was a prank. Especially since the 1GB of space was unimaginably ginormous by 2004 standards.
“Sergey was most excited about it,” says Rakowski. “The ultimate April Fools’ joke was to launch something kind of crazy on April 1st and have it still exist on April 2nd.”
“If you’re far enough ahead that people can’t figure out if you’re joking, you know you’ve innovated.”The team had to scamper to make the deadline, and in fact, Gmail wasn’t really ready to go: Google didn’t have the awesome server capacity in place to give millions of people reliable email and a gigabyte of space apiece. “We had a Catch-22 when we launched,” Buchheit remembers. “We couldn’t get many machines because people thought we couldn’t launch, but we couldn’t launch because we didn’t have machines.”
In the end, Gmail ended up running on three hundred old Pentium III computers nobody else at Google wanted. That was sufficient for the limited beta rollout the company planned, which involved giving accounts to a thousand outsiders, allowing them to invite a couple of friends apiece, and growing slowly from there.
As news about Gmail dribbled out on March 31 and continued into April Fools’ Day, the reaction did, indeed, include a fair amount of disbelief. “If you’re far enough ahead that people can’t figure out if you’re joking, you know you’ve innovated,” says Harik. “Primarily, journalists would call us and say ‘We need to know if you’re just kidding, or if this is real.’ That was fun.”
Once it was clear that Gmail was the real deal, the invitations became a hot property. The limited rollout had been born of necessity, but “it had a side effect,” says Harik. “Everyone wanted it even more. It was hailed as one of the best marketing decisions in tech history, but it was a little bit unintentional.”
Bidding for invites on eBay sent prices shooting up to $150 and beyond; sites such as Gmail Swap emerged to match up those with invites with those who desperately wanted them. Having a Hotmail or Yahoo Mail email address was slightly embarrassing; having a Gmail one meant that you were part of a club most people couldn’t get into.
Despite the publicity windfall, Buchheit sounds a tad wistful about the situation, even a decade later: “I think Gmail could have grown a lot more in the first year if we’d had more resources.”
The aura of exclusivity and experimentation stuck to Gmail long after it did grow huge. Google kept increasing the number of invites each user could issue, but it didn’t open up the service to all comers until Valentine’s Day, 2007. And Gmail wore its Beta label like a badge of honor until July of 2009. (The company finally removed it as a sop to cautious business customers, who didn’t want to sign up for something that sounded unfinished.)
Gmail’s use of advertising keyed to the contents of email messages raised hackles–maybe more so than Google had anticipated. Some critics thought it invaded the privacy of the sender; others felt that the recipient was the party whose rights had been violated. Fear of inappropriate placements—such as pharmaceutical ads next to an email concerning suicide—was a common theme. And some people had reasonable questions about what Google would do with the data it collected to serve the ads, and how long it would preserve it.
Gmail’s limited release—the same thing that had some people giddily competing for invites on eBay—left others developing an antipathy to the service based on assumptions rather than reality. “I went to dinner parties at friends of friends,” says Rakowski. “People would talk about Gmail, not knowing that I worked on it, understanding it incorrectly because they hadn’t had a chance to try it.”
The reaction from privacy groups got ugly fast. On April 6, 31 organizations and advocates co-signed a letter to Page and Brin, raising a gaggle of concerns about Gmail, calling it a bad precedent and asking that the service be suspended until their concerns could be addressed. “Scanning personal communications in the way Google is proposing is letting the proverbial genie out of the bottle,” they warned.
Right in Google’s own backyard, California State Senator Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) sent Google a letter of her own, calling Gmail a “disaster of enormous proportions, for yourself, and for all of your customers.” She went on to draft a bill requiring, among other things, that any company that wanted to scan an email message for advertising purposes get the consent of the person who sent it. (By the time the California Senate passed the law, cooler heads prevailed and that obligation had been eliminated.)
Google reacted to the controversy over Gmail’s ads by listening to the critics, detailing its policies on the Gmail site and spotlighting the work of journalists who thought the controversy was silly. It didn’t cave to those who demanded fundamental change to the service, and pushed back at what it argued was irresponsible behavior by some of the service’s foes:
When we began the limited test of Gmail, we expected our service would be the subject of intense interest. What we did not anticipate was the reaction from some privacy activists, editorial writers and legislators, many of whom condemned Gmail without first seeing it for themselves. We were surprised to find that some of these activists and organizations refused to even talk to us, or to try first-hand the very service they were criticizing. As we read news stories about Gmail, we have regularly noticed factual errors and out-of-context quotations. Misinformation about Gmail has spread across the web.
That’s unfortunate for Google, but why should you care? Because it may affect your right to make your own decisions about how you read your mail. This misinformation threatens to eliminate legitimate and useful consumer choices by means of legislation aimed at innocuous and privacy-aware aspects of our service, while simultaneously deflecting attention from the real privacy issues inherent to all email systems.
“Ten years from now, we’ll probably look back at the Gmail dust-up with…befuddlement,” wrote Slate’s Paul Boutin, one of the journalists whose pro-Gmail stances Google linked to in its response to the privacy flap. Mostly, we do: In 2012, the last time Google issued an official count, Gmail had 425 million active users, which suggests that discomfort with its approach to advertising is a minority view. The issue has never vanished entirely, though. It’s still in the courts, and Microsoft continues to tell consumers that it’s a reason to use Outlook.com, Hotmail’s successor.
A Decade Later
One remarkable thing about Gmail that wasn’t obvious in 2004: Its creators built it to last. The current incarnations of Outlook.com and Yahoo Mail have nothing to do with the email services Microsoft and Yahoo offered 10 years ago. But Gmail–despite having added features more or less continuously and gone through some significant redesigns–is still Gmail.
“I can’t think of another app that has existed so close to its original form for 10 years,” says Fox. “Someone who had only used Gmail in its first iteration and suddenly used it today would still understand Gmail. They’d know how to use it for virtually everything they’d want to do.”
“What makes the product what it is really comes from the continuous focus on the types of problems we’re trying to solve for our users,” says Alex Gawley, Gmail’s current product manager. “If you look back to 2004, the big problems email users were facing were having to delete messages for lack of storage, not being able to find messages and crazy amounts of spam.” Today, the big opportunities include making Gmail more action-oriented–which Google is doing with features such as live flight status information displayed within messages–and reimagining it for mobile devices such as phones and tablets. Gawley says challenges like those are enough to keep the Gmail team busy for the next half-decade.
Of course, no matter how inventive Gmail remains, it’s now the establishment. When newfangled apps and services such as Mailbox and Alto come along, the experience they’re reimagining is one created by Gmail, more than any other single email client, over the last decade. The creators of any new service would be thrilled to do to Google what Google did to Microsoft and Yahoo in 2004.
Then again, some of the issues email still has may not lend themselves to the sort of problem-solving Silicon Valley knows how to tackle. When I dropped Buchheit a line at his Gmail address asking to chat with him for this story, I got an automated message explaining that he was on hiatus from email—checking in, but only sporadically. Did Gmail’s creator think that email was broken all over again?
”The problem with email now is that the social conventions have gotten very bad,” Buchheit told me once we’d made contact. “There’s a 24/7 culture, where people expect a response. It doesn’t matter that it’s Saturday at 2 a.m.–people think you’re responding to email. People are no longer going on vacation. People have become slaves to email.”
“It’s not a technical problem. It can’t be solved with a computer algorithm. It’s more of a social problem.”
Sounds like the man who fixed email in 2004 is saying that the only folks who can fix it in 2014 and beyond are those of us who use it–and sometimes abuse it–it every day.