Nowadays it’s hard to believe that there was time when the most popular webmail service – Google mail, i.e. Gmail, was available to the private “invitation-only” audience. Gmail – free, advertising-supported email service is a product from Google. Users may access Gmail services on the web or via apps on Android and iOS mobile devices. As of February 2016, Gmail has 1 billion active users worldwide. It is also the first app in Google Play Store to hit 1 billion installations on Android devices. In 2014 it was reported that 60% of US mid-sized companies and 92% of US start-up companies were using Gmail.
In August 2001 Google developer Paul Buchheit started his work on Gmail project. The high volume of internal emails back at Google created a necessity for advanced search. This also led to a conversation of having a generous amount of storage space, that would allow to keep emails in mailbox, rather than deleting them to stay under the storage limit. At launch Gmail had an initial storage capacity of 1GB per user, which was significantly higher than what competitors offered back in the days. Today the service comes with free 15 GB per user. It’s possible to send emails with a max size of 25 MB and share bigger files by uploading them to Google Drive. First, email service was available only internally to Google employees.
On the 1st April 2004 Gmail was announced to the public by Google. First, the news were taken as a joke because Google was known for it’s April Fool’s jokes in the past. Once several senior managers confirmed Gmail existence, the public became curious about the product. When Gmail was announced, Google did not have yet reliable infrastructure to provide services to the millions users and couldn’t offer the promised storage capacity to everyone. So the product was available to the limited public, approximately 1000 people were invited to participate in testing Gmail beta version. Gmail users audience started growing slowly from there, by allowing first beta users to invite limited number of their family members and friends.
When it became clear that Gmail is a real product available to a limited public, it created an image of an exclusive club. Even though Google claims that restrictions on users number were put out of technical necessities, it actually gave Gmail, as a product, lots of publicity. Georges Harik, responsible for most Google products development at the time remembered: ““Everyone wanted it [Gmail] even more. It was hailed as one of the best marketing decisions in tech history, but it was a little bit unintentional”.
In April 2004 Google invited active users from the Blogger to participate in further beta testing of Gmail product, which again generated additional publicity. Occasionally Gmail users were given limited number of “invites” that they could share with family members and friends. By summer 2004 buying and selling market for Gmail invites was established, with some invitations selling for as much as $150 on Ebay. Gmail exclusive nature and well-publicized mail service features created great interest and demand, everybody wanted to own Gmail account.
In August 2005 SMS signup was launched in the US and Canada. People from these two countries did not need invites anymore, they could provide their cellphone numbers and receive signup codes. Some other countries were later added for this test.
One year later, in August 2006 several countries were added to free registration beta test. People from Australia, New Zealand and Japan could register for Gmail without invite or signup code.
Slowly, by February 2007 Gmail became available to everyone. On July 7, 2009 Google announced the end of beta status for Gmail product. Of course, the product still continues to go through different betas. The official beta status was dropped to attract more business users, who did not feel comfortable signing up for beta product, which sounded more like something unfinished. It’s interesting that for general public, beta status was associated more with an “honor badge”, they felt they were part of some cool product development.
Lessons for Others
Why was Gmail so long in Beta? Usually tech companies try to keep products in beta versions for a short period, but Google took a different approach with Gmail. It is believed that Google made a decision to keep beta status to signal users that they were still working on the product and its features. It also gave Google an opportunity to amend issuing new release updates, using 1.0, 2.0 etc versions.
Looking back, Gmail creator Buchheit believes that Gmail could have grown bigger in the first years if Google had more resources for the product. The image of something exclusive and experimental stuck with Gmail product long after it became huge. Having Gmail account meant you were part of the club many people were not able to be in. Unintentional limited release created a buzz in the air, social media (blogger etc) generated additional publicity and contributed to Gmail being one of the most successful product launches in the tech history.
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Gmail. Wikipedia information. Retrieved on May 28th, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gmail
History of Gmail. Wikipedia information. Retrieved on May 28th, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Gmail
Official Gmail Blog. Retrieved on May 28th, 2017. https://gmail.googleblog.com/2007/06/welcome-to-official-gmail-blog.html
McCracken, Harry. How Gmail Happened: The Inside Story of Its Launch 10 Years Ago. Retrieved on May 28th, 2017. http://time.com/43263/gmail-10th-anniversary/
Lapidos, Juliet. Why Did It Take Google So Long To Take Gmail Out of “Beta”? Retrieved on May 28th, 2017. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/recycled/2009/07/why_did_it_take_google_so_long_to_take_gmail_out_of_beta.html