Old Gmail logo.

Google is one of many companies that love to join in on the April Fools’ Day fun every year. However, its best April Fools’ Day announcement wasn’t actually a joke at all. It was a little thing called Gmail.

Nowadays, sharing serious news on April 1st is a good way to make people ignore it. The internet gets saturated with fake announcements and phony products. It wasn’t always like this, though. This is why Google announced Gmail on April 1st, 2004.

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Not a Joke

Let’s go back to 2004. Web-based email clients were not a new idea at this time. Hotmail and Yahoo Mail were both extremely popular. Paul Buchheit was a developer at Google working on something called “Google Groups.” He was asked to build an email product.

Buchheit’s first version of Gmail was created in one day based on the code from Google Groups. The goal was to create a web email service that wasn’t written in plain HTML—like Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. Every action required the server to reload the page, which was slow. Buchheit worked around that by using JavaScript.

Gmail was kept secret even from people within Google for a while.  However, by early 2004 most people within the company were using it. Gmail was finally announced to the public on April 1st, 2004. Google made it clear that Gmail was in beta, even sticking “Beta” on the logo.

Naturally, some people thought the announcement was a joke. At the time, Google was only known for search and ads. An email service seemed pretty far out of left field. People soon realized it was a real product.

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Invites & the Forever Beta

2004 Gmail interface.
Gmail in 2004. Wikipedia/Jason Shellen

Google didn’t simply announce Gmail and allow anyone to sign up. It simply did not have the infrastructure to run Gmail with a large number of users. In fact, Gmail ran on three hundred old Pentium III computers at launch.

To kick things off, Google invited 1,000 media members and other prominent figures in technology to try it out and invite their friends and family members. These invites became highly desirable as word of Gmail spread. The 1GB of free storage was a huge selling point.

In late April 2004, Google extended invites to active users on its Blogger platform. Invites remained in high demand. Some people were even selling their invites online. Invites would be required all the way until February 2007.

However, the “beta” tag was still there. Gmail’s beta status became sort of a joke. It was in beta right from the beginning in 2004 and remained in beta for five years, until July 2009. By this time Gmail was already very popular and hadn’t felt like a “beta” product for some time.

1GB of Storage for Free

When Buchheit was first working on Gmail, one of the things Google wanted was robust search capabilities. There was a very high volume of emails being sent within Google, which made search features a must.

All of that email volume is what lead to the 1GB of free storage. It may not seem like it nowadays, but that was an incredible feature. Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and other web email services were offering around 2 to 4MB at the time. 1GB was astronomical.

Gmail boasted a lot of great features compared to the competition, but the 1GB of free storage was what drove the demand for invites. Having that much storage—for free, no less—meant people could essentially keep emails forever.

To sweeten the deal even more, Google upped the free storage to 2GB on April Fools’ Day 2005—another great “joke.” The free storage space has continued to increase since then, sitting at 15GB of free storage in 2022. Competitors have been forced to keep up.

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A Very Successful “Prank”

What started as possibly a joke—“why is the search company making email?”—has become one of the most successful products of all time. As of 2019, there are 1.5 billion active Gmail users around the world. You can see Gmail’s meteoric rise in the video above.

April Fools’ Day is a day of bad jokes and cringey “pranks,” but occasionally something good comes from it. There may never be a more universally praised and enjoyed April Fools’ Day announcement than Gmail back in 2004. It’s become so much more than those humble beginnings.

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Profile Photo for Joe Fedewa Joe Fedewa
Joe Fedewa is a Staff Writer at How-To Geek. He has been covering consumer technology for over a decade and previously worked as Managing Editor at XDA-Developers. Joe loves all things technology and is also an avid DIYer at heart. He has written thousands of articles, hundreds of tutorials, and dozens of reviews.
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