15 years after its debut, will Gmail ever be dethroned?

Every few years, people pronounce email to be dead. Yet, here we are, some 30 years into email’s existence and it’s still the first place people turn to move their opportunities forward.

Frequently I find myself thinking about email, perhaps the unsexiest of all our daily technologies, questioning how it’s continued to stay relevant for so long. I don’t think there is any single answer that will suffice. Rather, it’s made up of many components:

  • Lots of optionalities – no single governing org can get in the way of sender and recipient
  • Behaviorally, we’re all indoctrinated into these unwritten rules that keep email courteous
  • It’s largely remained a simple, straightforward interface
  • It carefully innovates and improves

This week marked the 15th birthday of Gmail. Although they were extremely late to the Email party (seven years behind Yahoo!, eight behind Hotmail/Outlook.com, and eleven behind AOL), when Gmail entered the game, they came correct… just as they did with Google Search (which was the 9th search engine).

For the first three years of Gmail’s existence (2004-2007), they only allowed people to join if they were invited. This became such a sought after proposition that people were buying and selling these invites on eBay.

At a time when it was so simple to create email accounts – personally I created a new Yahoo! email every three or four weeks to sign up for online games – Gmail’s exclusivity proved worthwhile. Along with their roll-out of the G Suite which complemented email so nicely, Google became the undisputed champion of email.

Ironically, the only Email provider that came close to dethroning Gmail was Inbox, which Google-owned and made more “advanced” than Gmail. However, Gmail still beat them out and Google decided to discontinue Inbox last week.

This week, Gmail further solidified their worth by introducing new features such as Email Scheduling (so you can draft an email and auto-send it later) and Smart Compose (which has already been finishing your sentences but will now create your subject lines too).

Because they have such a large user base, the developer ecosystem that is building new features for Gmail is what keeps them going. For instance, the Email Scheduling feature is something I’ve been using for four years through a plug-in called Streak. Hundreds of other plugins, if they prove their worth, may one day be implemented in Gmail.

When we look to the future, many people talk about how email needs to become more visual and engaging if it wants to survive. I think nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it’s email’s simplicity which keeps it so useful.

Additionally, many people complain about their ever-expanding, overcrowded inbox, to which I always recommend SaneBox – a service that has helped me manage the more than 350 weekly emails I get, many of which require a response.

Email automation will be useful the most useful advance in Email in terms of helping us draft emails, manage our inboxes, and communicate quicker. It’ll also help marketers reach more people while maintaining a level of quasi-personalization.

If I were making a bet, I’d say that by 2028, Google Assistant will be able to automatically suggest entire responses for all communication channels. Google Duplex (which makes calls to real humans on your behalf), Smart Compose, and Smart Reply are all baby steps toward making this a reality.

Regardless, email is going to remain a channel where empathy, care, and the human-touch reign supreme. Until voice assistants and conversational AI can fake these traits really well (they’re getting close), it’s best to be the one behind your written emails.

What do you want to see in the Future of Email? Head over to the I/H community to drop your thoughts:

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