OPINION

The Logic Behind Gmail

April 26, 2006
Shravan Sampath

If there was one identifier in your life you would not change, what would it be?

My mom would say, her phone number. I would say, my email address.

Email is one of the most important first-mover based businesses, and Gmail has come into this market and effectively grabbed a powerful market share in its beta stage itself. How did this happen? How did they make such a first mover based business into their domain? After spending many sleepless nights on this, I have a theory!

First, they came out with a great product. Gmail was nothing like ever seen before. A 1 GB inbox, Ajax based pages which ensured quicker loading, convenient address book and retreival, and so on. This is always the first step for a company that wants to take over a market. Make a great product!

Then, they realized that by offering so much storage space, they needed to make money somewhere. So they put in context-based advertising in email. Of course, there was an initial hue and cry about this, and the media caught on fast. The buzzword today, "Invasion of privacy", was so often quoted, that Osama Bin Laden became a no-news in comparison.

Then they began their marketing campaign. It wasn't much actually. In my opinion, the only smart thing they did initially was that they made it an invitation based service. When you don't give a great product to a customer, he absolutely HAS to have it. The craze for gmail invites became so bad that someone actually auctioned off a few invites on eBay.

So they built a cult. A gmail ID became something to be proud of. Some people had actually paid for it (on eBay!). Now, if you paid for something, wouldn't you want it to be as good as an official email ID from, say, VSNL or sify? So now, gmail became an official looking email ID for a person. My bet is, if you pick up a random sample of ten gmail users, you would find atleast 6-7 of them with a firstname.lastname@gmail.com email ID, or lastname.firstname@gmail.com . Of course! It was now something to be proud of! It wasn't just another free email service. The google brandname helped too, because gmail was its first big project after the search engine itself, and everyone around the world was discovering the joys of "googling".

So, slowly and steadily, and still in beta stage, gmail began acquiring customers from the other email ID providers. Yahoo was nice to them. They offered mail forwarding services, and made silly attempts to catch up by increasing their capacity to 1 GB too. It was obvious that they were now the laggards. Yahoo was just not "cool" anymore. Of course, in the ancient Web 1.0 days there used to be a service called hotmail, which has positively the most tacky and inconvenient interface in the web today. For a long time, they also had a policy of increasing inbox size to 250 MB only for American users. They managed to retain a few american customers, but pissed off many non-Americans like me.

As gmail grew, they kept upgrading their services, to include a gtalk with excellent voice capabilities, and then a gtalk within gmail (god save meebo!)

Slowly, a set of staunch gmail supporters emerged, who refused to use other services. In fact, these were such loyal customers that kept recommending other users to email. The new bunch of Web 2.0 users slowly flocked to gmail. They also handed out more invites, and this cycle began to move faster and faster.

Today, there are over 5 million users of gmail, and these are serious users, who use gmail as their official ID sometimes, for personal mail too, and would swear by their service.

Gmail managed to effectively break into a market that people thought was completely based on the first mover advantage. Another hint that effective marketing can break such dumb old cliches?

Shravan is a management student, consultant, movie critic, political critic, and so on. He lives in a suitcase, and moves from one city to another. He also writes at Comfortably numb...
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#1
Pratyush
URL
April 26, 2006
11:57 AM

Very nice piece dude.

Another important reason: Google did it! If google was going ahead with mails, it was bound to create curiousity.

The invites system is still prevelant in gmail. Invites is a good concept on the internet because some one has to do a bit extra to get the service. So the retention probability is much more higher.

Quality service is some thing gmail definitely does provide. It is not easy to get customers to switch from their earlier email Ids as they will do it only when it is that much more better.

With google talk and google talk synchronisation, it will have the msn effect with people talking and mailing via google, like they did via msn a few years ago.

Another aspect is adding people on gmail is almost automatic. If people have a gmail id and they exchange emails, it is one step away to add the person on the google ids. There is also some thing about frequent email exchanged people automatically or more easily added if I am not wrong.

#2
sami
URL
April 26, 2006
02:05 PM

The Gmail interface is so good and its spam filtering too has been so impressive that I forward even my personal domain email ids to gmail mailbox. I have also bid goodbye to the desktop email clients(Evolution, Thunderbird etc) after getting addicted to GMail's conversation stacking and filters+labels features. I can now chat from with in the browser too!

#3
Soam Acharya
URL
April 26, 2006
02:14 PM

Some points:

* You ignore the privacy concerns raised by Gmail when it first came out. The notion of Google reading personal e-mail to serve up relevant ads raised a lot of issues. While it may be ok with some folks, others definitely view it with concern.

* Gmail's UI is an acquired taste. I've known folks who won't use it because of that reason.

* You pass over Yahoo's attempts to catch up whereas Yahoo's new beta e-mail client won the PC Magazine editor's choice last year, beating out Gmail, amonst others. Here's the review: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1759,1830114,00.asp
The full version will be rolled out in the US sometime late this year.

I admire Gmail's marketing and success and have a gmail account myself - but my Yahoo e-mail accounts are still my primary means of contact and has been way before I was a Y! employee.

#4
Angshuman
URL
April 26, 2006
02:29 PM

Very nice piece; it told a simple story that needed to be told. To me the big winner is: Gmail wins hands down in group discussions.

#5
Zainub
URL
April 26, 2006
05:19 PM

The archieve feature is unique for Gmail and really was one of the first things that made me fall in love with Gmail. Since then almost everything genuinely good that's happened in my life has been related to my switching from Yahoo (my previous primary Email) to G-mail, I call this G-luck. :)

#6
Desh
URL
April 26, 2006
05:41 PM

Upload docs through Gmail...

I wonder if any of you have used the gspace thing to store files?

Here is my blog on how to do that.. http://www.drishtikone.com/?q=node/1331

you would need to use the firefox browser for that.. but its real cool stuff!

#7
sami
URL
April 27, 2006
01:20 AM

People who have not liked GMail's interface shouldn't be liking the Yahoo Mail Beta interface too, as they look very similar. isn't it just the oddpost interface with some more improvements?

#8
The Hissing Saint
URL
April 27, 2006
03:40 AM

I may be wrong here but if I am not mistaken I believe around the same time that Gmail came about Rediff was already offering close to a GB of email storage.

Talking about the craze for Gmail, I remember Gmail actually having an auction space on the site itself. Wannabe gmail users could put up stuff (no cash!)they would give in exchange of a gmail invite. And the craziest thing I had seen was a woman offering her panties in exchange for a gmail invite!

#9
IndianArchie
URL
April 27, 2006
05:15 AM

Hissing Saint: Actually Rediff bumped up its Inbox to 1 GB *after* the arrival of GMail, probably as a response to that service.

IndianArchie
Musings that Amuse

#10
Jan Paricka
URL
April 27, 2006
11:02 AM

Very good article, man! Well done.

PS - I wouldn't sell my gmail account for the Earth!

#11
ZeroMP
April 27, 2006
11:36 AM

@ Soam Acharya

Actually the media attention to the alleged "invasion of privacy" was mentioned in the article.

The idea that Google's ads are a privacy concern has been brought up (and debunked) ad nauseum.

Yahoo blows on ice.

#12
Pratyush
URL
April 27, 2006
12:34 PM

Jan Paricka - I am sure you would, if a better service came up eventually. That is the beauty of competition. :)

#13
Soam Acharya
URL
April 27, 2006
01:26 PM

ZeroMP - Gmail's overall marketshare remains small. Partly this may be because Google has other priorities as well as capacity issues but there may well be other factors (such as privacy concerns) too. It would have been nice to see the author address that issue in this context. As I've mentioned before, I admire Gmail but calling victory here may be premature.

Sami - the core of it is indeed based on Oddpost. However, the UI metaphor is more akin to Outlook.

#14
Jim Barr
URL
April 27, 2006
03:40 PM

Soam Acharya - The privacy issue seems to pop up again and again. Though they are concerns to be understood, I think they are far overblown.

To put it into perspective, almost every email service on the planet scans every word and every character of every email that passes through its systems. Why? To try to find viruses and spam. Gmail is really doing nothing more than searching for word patterns and matching them to ad words. And you can bet that Gmail is not the only service that is indexing and statistically aanalyzing email content. [doffs conspiracy theory hat]

If one sees this kind of message scanning as a problem, then the best advise is to not use the service. So many condemmed Gmail initially for this without really understanding the facts.

As for Yahoo's email, I think it is an excellent service, and like Gmail, will continue to develop into a stronger and more feature-rich service. The important thing is to use what works for YOU, the user. I personally dislike the "flashy" and (in my opinion) intrusive ads that the likes of Yahoo Mail and Hotmail provide. I personally prefer Gmail's unobtrusive, context-relevent ads.

Competition among the online email services can only be a good thing for users.

#15
Shravan Sampath
URL
April 27, 2006
04:59 PM

Thanks Jim, you took the words out of my mouth. Scanning of email is still taking place, and it will still go on. GMail only took it a step further.

You are also right. GMail is not a market leader. But I don't think a business has to be a market leader to be successful. Its context specific ads are much more useful than the flashy banner ads, and Im sure (though not verified) that it would be more revenue generating.

#16
Steve Smith
April 28, 2006
10:33 AM

Google sounds like they are being nice offering Gmail and 1GB etc. But just wait 5 years from now when the truth comes out about what they are doing with these personal emails.

#17
Naser
URL
May 10, 2006
09:45 AM

I don't want to be a wiseguy, but isn't it high time for desicritic to have a redesign? I mean its web 2.0 years man, and I see nothing but old tables and div> tags here and there.

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