On Tuesday, April 1st, Gmail celebrated it's 10th birthday. It's hard to remember how revolutionary Gmail was at the time. Time published an excellent retrospective which quotes the current Google PM: "If you look back to 2004, the big problems email users were facing were having to delete messages for lack of storage, not being able to find messages and crazy amounts of spam."Part of the brilliance of the original marketing concept was the multiple meanings of the G in Gmail. Obviously, it was email from Google. But the name also embedded the idea of giving users 1 GB of storage. That was 500x the free storage offered by the leading webmail providers at the time -- Yahoo and Microsoft.
Yet a huge amount of storage by itself wasn't enough of a value-add. In fact, one could argue that without a clever UX and search algorithms, more email storage might actually have been a burden. Having 1 GB encouraged digital hoarding. Google completed the usefulness of Gmail by applying it's best-in-class web search to email folders. So even if a user saved every scrap of email whether trivial or important, Google search would surface the right message for her. This reduced the cognitive load of constantly sorting all your messages into hierarchies of folders.
Gmail eliminated the need for endlessly elaborate e-mail folder management. In our research at Kabuto, we've talked to email power users who were trained in email usage before 2004. To this day, these users still meticulously sort emails into the correct folders, using a single inheritance model. In contrast, Gmail popularized the concept of labels or tags, which allow the same message to be grouped in multiple categories simultaneously. (To be fair, Lotus Notes introduced this feature years earlier, but who really wants to use Notes unless they're forced to?)
Fast forward to 2014. After the vast improvements Gmail introduced to the way we use email, is email a solved problem? Absolutely not. MG Siegler does a great job chronicling his multi-year struggle with email. He is far from alone. Google and Dropbox recognize that email is still painful. They continue to experiment with new technical features that might help. Although these enhancements fix the edges of the problem, I believe there's more of a core issue. It's not the product implementation so much as the social norms of how we use email.
Gmail creator and and FriendFeed co-founder Paul Buchheit expresses the situation well: "The problem with email now is that the social conventions have gotten very bad...It's not a technical problem. It can't be solved with a computer algorithm. It's more of a social problem."
I believe that we will develop new practices, expectations, and tools to address those social problems . Here’s hoping that on Gmail's 20th birthday, today's struggles with email are just a memory.