Google is undermining one big reason why people flocked to Gmail in the first place

  • Google most recently raised the storage limit for Drive, Gmail and Photos for free users in May 2013.
  • Google says that its Drive storage service now has more than 1 billion active users.
  • In March Google launched the Google One storage offering, which provides 2 terabytes of storage for $9.99 per month -- two times more space for that price than what you got through the previous premium Drive storage plan.
Google cofounder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Google cofounder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page.

On April Fools' Day 2004, Google made a splash when it introduced Gmail, a free online email service. One reason it was revolutionary was its gigabyte of free storage space — the idea being that you wouldn't have to constantly be deleting email in order to keep things going.

I've been a happy Gmail user all these years, as Google has provided more storage space, and Gmail has remained easy to use. And I'm not the only one — Gmail is now one of Google's eight services with more than 1 billion active users, a spokesman told me.

But today, I'm in a jam. I've run out of space across Gmail, the Google Drive storage service and the Google Photos app.

I have options.

I could clear up space by deleting emails (email takes up much more of my space than photos or files) or moving some data around to other Google accounts. Or I could move them to services from other providers like Microsoft, which I pay $99.99 per year for the Office 365 suite that includes Outlook for email and OneDrive for storage.

The simpler thing to do would be to pull out my credit card and start paying Google.

That would go against the original value proposition of Gmail, though. Way back in 2004, the press release introducing Gmail to the world included an impactful quote from Google cofounder Larry Page:

"Gmail solves all of my communication needs. It's fast and easy and has all the storage I need. And I can use it from anywhere. I love it!"

I imagine that today Page, who is now CEO of Google's parent company, Alphabet, remains a Gmail user. I wonder if he started paying at some point.

It helps that Google has raised the limit on data storage for Gmail users multiple times.

In 2005, it jumped 100 percent to 2 gigabytes.

By 2007, users had about 40 percent more -- 2.8 gigabytes.

In 2011 the limit was 168 percent larger, at 7.5 gigabytes.

Then in 2012 it jumped 33 percent to 10 gigabytes.

And 2013 was the most recent time Google raised the limit -- bringing it up 50 percent to 15 gigabytes.

But now it's been five years since Google gave free users more room for stuff. (Google did introduce free and unlimited storage of images and videos through Google Photos in 2015, but if you want that free tier, you'll need to be okay with content getting compressed or resized.)

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The free storage I got with a Chromebook expired

My specific situation was helped along because a few years ago bought a Chromebook as a sort of backup computer. The purchase happened to come with a perk: 100 gigabytes of free storage.

But last month, Google emailed me and let me know that the extra storage would soon be going away. It turns out the promotion lasted two years.

As of today, I'm back to being just another Google account holder with 15 gigabytes of standard-issue free storage. But my data takes up more than 21 gigabytes. When I checked my Gmail inbox this morning, there was a pink banner on top instructing me to free up space or pay. In Google Drive, the icon on the left that shows how much space is left is now colored red. Conveniently there is a link below to "UPGRADE STORAGE."

These days, through the Google One plan the company introduced this year, you can have 100 gigabytes for $19.99 per year. And $9.99 per month now gets you 2 terabytes of storage, 100 percent more than before. Those prices aren't crazy — and I understand Google's desire to get customers paying for storage so it can grow and further diversify away from advertising — but it's the principle of the thing.

I keep thinking back to Larry Page's words "all the storage I need." Did Page and others believe that would only be applicable for a few years? I hope not.

Gmail is the product that got the public to start thinking about Google as more than just a web search provider. Presumably, one reason Google has been successful at getting companies to adopt its apps for business use, and sometimes displacing Microsoft Office, is that so many people know and love Gmail.

But if Google keeps things as they are, it risks losing some of the goodwill it has earned among consumers.