Gmail: Email Client Giant

Iconic Products episode 004

There’s no denying it: Gmail is huge.

With more than 1.2 billion monthly users, Google’s email client has grown significantly in the past 14 years and continues to dominate the market as one of the most-used email clients in the world.

But what makes Gmail such an iconic product? Let’s dive right in!

woman dancing in space in a gmail outfit

An unbelievable offering

Gmail had a somewhat unorthodox launch back in 2004.

At a time when you paid for email services such as AOL and had to spend a ton of time searching for things in Outlook, Gmail completely revolutionized something that seemed so unexciting and routine: your email inbox. 📧

The press release announcing its launch was dated for April 1 — so many thought it was simply an April Fools’ Day joke.

It also didn’t help that some of the features of Gmail seemed unbelievable or, at the very least, too good to be true.

For example, Google offered 1 GB of free storage for each Gmail account — this was an amount of free storage space that was simply unheard of at this point in time. To put this in perspective: this was 500 times more storage than what Microsoft’s Hotmail offered (yes, Hotmail only gave you 2MB per account at the time). 😱

According to an interview with Gmail’s first product manager, Brian Rakowski, the April 1 launch was intentional. He said that the “ultimate April Fools’ joke was to launch something kind of crazy on April 1 and have it still exist on April 2.”

Gmail, with its incredibly large storage, easy-to-use interface, search capabilities and more, changed the email game when it launched.

Google — and more specifically, Paul Buchheit — worked on Gmail for nearly three years before consumers could use it, and it was one of the first (if not the first) major cloud-based apps that could replace conventional PC software. 💽

As Google leveraged web technology to create its email program early on, it made Gmail feel like real software rather than a sequence of web pages by using JavaScript.

There were instances in which the project could have just been abandoned altogether. Internally, Googlers were hesitant about the concept for a variety of reasons — so it’s incredible that it even became a product in the first place.

Free email inbox — meet AdSense

Google AdSense, the product that scans messages to find keywords that could be used for advertising purposes, was prototyped while creating Gmail.

This tool sparked a debate around online privacy that still continues to this day (and is, of course, making headlines in recent months, thanks in part to things such as GDPR and the Cambridge Analytica scandal). 🔒

But this was one of the ideas for Gmail in its very early days: create a system that analyzes the text of emails so that Google can run ads alongside them.

calculating math in head

According to Marissa Mayer herself, she almost prevented AdSense from ever coming to light. 😳

While she was initially against having ads in Gmail, Buchheit supposedly stayed up all night finishing the product and Mayer saw ads everywhere the next day — and they were well done and well targeted.

In a nutshell, Buchheit had figured out how to scan text that matched up with ads that had already been purchased by customers for search queries. Co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw the product soon after, and the company decided to apply the technology outside of Gmail to other websites.

This product is what we now know as AdSense, one of Google’s largest sources of revenue.

So, to put it simply: the work that made Gmail free by developing targeted ads next to it didn’t just change the business model for email services, it indirectly changed the business model for a lot of websites based on ads. 🆓

Reinventing Gmail

As you’ve probably already heard (or seen for yourself), Google recently released a new redesign of Gmail. 🤗

Email is still alive and well, but email clients have felt a bit stagnant in recent years, so the redesign is a welcomed change.

While it definitely has a more sleek and modern feel, following that of Material Design, it’s not a drastic difference from the last interface.

In fact, it almost looks like a combination of Gmail and Inbox (more on that in a minute). The new Gmail is clean, visual and packed with new features. 😍

Some of these features include snoozing emails so that they reappear in your inbox hours or days later, smart reply suggestions in each email thread and the fact that you can load widgets of other apps on the right side of the screen (so you can use Tasks and Calendar while in an email thread).

Beyond these new features, it’s apparent that Google is focusing more on both productivity and security.

Google Workspace, for years, has been behind Microsoft in terms of workplace productivity software, but it looks like Google is trying to claim this space with its new design and features.

In an interview with The Verge, Jacob Bank, lead product manager for Gmail, said that Google’s redesign was done with a focus on “making people safer and more productive,” both important aspects in appealing to business users.

It certainly looks like we’ll be seeing Gmail move even more toward a business focus in due time. 💼

A super-fast web experience

One of Google’s main priorities when creating a new product is that it’s fast. User experience is at the heart of everything Google creates, and Gmail is no exception. 🏃‍

Even though they were the next big, exciting thing, web apps were slow and clunky around the time of Gmail’s launch. So, Google’s attention to a fast response time and high performance was a major development in the world of web apps.

Gmail, like all Google products, was built with the RAIL model in mind. RAIL is a “user-centric performance model that breaks down the user’s experience into key actions.”

They go on to explain that every web app has four specific aspects to its lifecycle, and the performance of the app fits into them in different ways. They are Response, Animation, Idle and Load.

This model helps designers and developers focus on what’s most important: making your users the focal point of your performance effort. 🚀

With these four elements of an app’s lifecycle, Google has the following guidelines:

  • Response: respond in under 50ms
  • Animation: produce a frame in 10ms
  • Idle: maximize idle time
  • Load: deliver content and become interactive in under 5 seconds

A separate product for early adopters

How can you make a product that appeals to the masses, as well as to early adopters, if your product is something people generally feel conservative about?

The Gmail solution: create a separate product for early adopters, built on the same infrastructure. 👍

Inbox by Gmail is an email service that was developed by Google and launched by-invitation-only in 2014 (later launching to the public in 2015). It’s a product that came from the Gmail team, and it serves, according to Google, as a “completely different type of inbox, designed to focus on what really matters.”

It’s essentially a version of your Gmail inbox without all of the clutter. Inbox identifies and categorizes your emails so that you can quickly see what needs to be addressed and what can be archived or saved for later. ✅

Gmail is the classic version, which only gets features as soon as they are perfected and can be delivered without people freaking out about how Gmail has changed — which can probably explain why there seems to be quite a bit of Inbox influence in the Gmail redesign.

The decision to split Inbox from Gmail actually stemmed from quite a dramatic point of contention at Google.

The Google engineers, testing out potential new designs (similar to Inbox), hated the fact that the more advanced features were missing and felt like the designers were ruining Gmail. It actually got to the point that the head of Gmail’s design team created a presentation called “You Are Not the User,” detailing every design/feature decision the team made based on data.

After more drama and back-and-forth about it, they reached a compromise. They decided to streamline Gmail while keeping the advanced features available for those who wanted them. 👩‍💻

Inbox is quite useful for those of us who need to go through hundreds of emails a day — and it certainly helps keep your email experience a bit more pleasant and organized.

With all this in mind, Gmail is a product many of us use in our daily lives, so we’re excited to see what else Google has in the works for transforming the way we email! ✨

Enjoyed it? Read on about other Iconic Products. 📲

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Ali Colwell