Launched on April Fools’ Day 2004, Google’s GMail Web-based email service has been an invitation-only offering for nearly three years—and during that time, the service has been in perpetual “beta,” meaning Google is willing to let people use the service but wasn’t willing to say it was fully cooked. When GMail was launched, users had to receive an invitation to join the service from somebody with a GMail account in order to access the service. Over time, Google has relaxed restrictions—at one point throwing GMail open to anyone with a text message-capable mobile phone—but Google still limited the total number of users.
As of today, Gmail is now available to all Internet users worldwide—although Google still hasn’t removed the “beta” tag from the service. In part, Google has opened GMail’s doors because the company now believes it has the computing and storage capacity to support open signups: GMail famously offers substantial storage for users’ email (currently nearly 3 GB) free of charge. But GMail has also evolved into a cornerstone of Google’s services separate from Internet searching: Google’s calendar, online productivity applications, instant messaging, and other services all integrate with GMail. And because GMail users tend to stay logged in to Google services over a long period of time (checking their email!), Google learns more about those users searching and usage habits…and that information is valuable to Google’s advertisers.
Google plans to offer additional fee-based enhancements to GMail; for instance, Google is likely to offer additional GMail storage capacity for users, perhaps priced at a level similar to Google’ photo-hosting service (currently $25/year for 6.25 GB).
GMail initially attracted criticism and raised privacy concern for automatically scanning the contents of users’ email in order to present “relevant” advertising alongside messages.