Gmail Launched 20 Years Ago Today. Why Isn’t It Better?

It remains a rather clunky service two decades later

In this photo illustration the gmail app can be seen on a smartphone next to a finger on March 27, 2024 in Berlin, Germany
Gmail: The frustrating email service you use every day
Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

On April 1, 2004, Google launched its now ubiquitous email service Gmail, inspired (in part) by a customer complaint. As its launch press release touted, Gmail would be free, easily searchable and offer a storage capacity of up to eight billion bits of information.

“[A customer] kvetched about spending all her time filing messages or trying to find them,” Google co-founder Larry Page said at the launch. “And when she’s not doing that, she has to delete email like crazy to stay under the obligatory four-megabyte limit. So she asked, ‘Can’t you people fix this?’” The idea then became part of one engineer’s “20 percent time” project, where Google employees were required to spend a day a week on work unrelated to their day jobs.

At the time, a gratis email service that offered 1GB of free storage and supposed organizational prowess was revolutionary. In the two decades since its launch, Gmail has commanded 1.8 billion active users, or around 22% of the world’s population. Additionally, 121 billion emails are sent through the service each day, and hundreds of thousands of companies utilize Gmail as their email management tool.

So…why isn’t it better?

Sure, it’s improved since the launch. Users now have access to 15GB of free storage. You can use your email log-in to sign in to just about any app. The Smart Compose and Smart Reply options have quickened email conversations a bit (or made us lazier). And the biggest accomplishment of Gmail in the last two decades seems to be an effort to cut down on spam which happened last year.

And yet, it’s frustrating. I’ve continually had issues with search — the system often seems to skip over or ignore emails I know I’ve written or received when I put in a simple query. And those queries aren’t always so simple: why do I have to look up specific commands and phrases to use when I want to narrow down a search to a particular folder? This is one area where dropdown menus could help (and yes, I’m aware of the filter system within the search bar; I’ve never had much luck with it).

Gmail’s former lead designer hates Gmail so much, he built an extension to fix it. Wired complained about Gmail’s awful design back in 2022 (with an excellent use of the word “chonky”) and offered a way to get back to the service’s old design, which wasn’t pretty to begin with but did the job. And privacy and security remain issues with some users.

In the end, Gmail reminds me a lot of Amazon or iTunes — monolithic tech services that get increasingly frustrating to use over the years, but ones that are limited in how much they can alter their services due to customer familiarity.

So happy birthday, Gmail. You’re looking and feeling a little old. And I’m not sure adding AI assistants is going to make your service easier.

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