How Google rescued us from a life of Hotmail

What, us worry?

The beta label may have deflected some complaints, but that didn't stop some users from grumbling - especially over outages. Gmail's exceptional reliability and astonishing scale meant that on the rare occasions it did go down, the whole world noticed. The worst happened in September 2013, affecting nearly half of Gmail's global users. That's hundreds of millions of people: when Google's various services suffered blackouts the month before, global internet traffic dropped by nearly 40%.

There were more serious complaints too. The ill-fated launch of Google Buzz, the precursor to Google+, outraged many when their Gmail address books became public contact lists, and there have been ongoing concerns over privacy because Gmail scans the content of your emails to better target advertising.

The most recent such concern was in August 2013, during the height of the NSA spying allegations, when Google's lawyers wrote that "a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy" when using the service - a phrase that was quickly seized on by Google's critics. Their worries were unfounded: the phrase simply meant that anybody who sent emails to Gmail should expect Google's software to process those messages.

A new Google

Viewed from today, it's clear that Gmail was the beginning of a new Google, the Google we have now. Before Gmail, Google was reactive and fairly impersonal: it couldn't help you until you typed search terms into its little search box, and its knowledge of you was limited to what you used it to search for.

With Gmail, Google began to paint a better picture - a picture that it's since fleshed out even more with data from Drive and Play, Maps and News, Calendar and YouTube, Picasa and Google+. It's a picture of you: what you do and view, what you say and listen to, where you go and when you're going.

That picture has improved Google in two crucial ways. It's enabled Google to better answer your questions, in some cases before you even knew you had questions, and it's enabled Google to better target its advertising, which is of course what ultimately pays for all the free stuff, Android and moonshots.

Without Gmail we'd no doubt still be Googling - but we might not be Google anything else-ing.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now and her next book, about pop music, is out in 2025. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band Unquiet Mind.