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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.

Gmail's creator, Paul Buchheit, at his desk at Google in 1999

Courtesy Paul Buchheit

“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

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.