Gmail Engineer Paul Buchheit has a lovely post in which he explains why he created Gmail for Google. He begins by noting that email has just turned 34 - only one or two months younger than me as it happens. He goes on to say that Gmail gave him "the opportunity to change email". This description is fantastic:
"We didn't want to simply bolt new features onto old interfaces. We needed to rethink email, but at the same time we needed to respect that email already had over 30 years of history, thousands of existing programs, and nearly a billion users. So we started by learning which features were most important, and which problems were most aggravating. We also realized that solving everyone's problems was too big of a challenge for the first release. It would be better to build a product that a lot of people love, than one that everyone tolerates, and so that was our goal."
Gmail was released on 1 April, 2004. Apart from the gimmick of offering 1000MB of storage, Gmail had these innovations:
"Gmail included a quick and accurate search. It introduced powerful new concepts to organize email, such as the conversation view (so now I can finally see all those replies at once). It provided a fast and dynamic interface from web browsers everywhere, popularizing the techniques that have since become known as AJAX."
I'm a big fan of Gmail. Even though it's not perfect and the occasional "oops please check back later" messages can be annoying, Gmail is to my mind the first email system that was built purely for the Web. There were earlier web email systems, of course - Hotmail and Oddpost for example. But it wasn't until Gmail came along that I felt comfortable using a Web email system as my main and preferred method of email (I hardly touch Outlook now). That's because Gmail is in the same class of functionality as Outlook, only it has Web-native features such as the ability to check your email from multiple computers.
Some people prefer their Web email systems to mimic the functionality of desktop email systems. Sure it's easier for people to adjust to Web email if it's the same paradigm as desktop email, but the Web era is different in many ways to the PC era and so Web email should reflect that. Gmail was an outstanding attempt at introducing new concepts to Web email and they've largely been successful.
Say what you like about Google's stand-offish nature and perceived arrogance, one thing I admire about Google is that they continually look to disrupt (there's that word again) traditional computing paradigms and markets.
I'm looking forward to the next round of Gmail innovations. Thanks Paul for the great post!