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Geek Trivia: Guess who owned the original version of Gmail.com

There's a great deal of history and interest tied up in gmail.com -- which is interesting, considering Google's webmail service is not the first email provider to reside at that domain.

An update on April 9, 2015 by Jay Garmon:

Even four years later, we're still doing the Quibble of the Week.

Back in 2004, just when Google was announcing their (thought to be an April Fool's joke) Gmail service, a commentor on Slashdot noted that Gmail.com once belonged to Garfield.com. The cartoon cat's owners offered "G-Mail" as a vanity webmail service for the fictional feline's fans. Thus began a widely recirculated (including by me) trivia tidbit that Google bought Gmail from Garfield.

Turns out, that's not true.

Garfield.com did offer a "G-Mail" service, but did so from gmail.garfield.com -- you can see an Archive.org version of its signup form still today -- from a subdomain of the proper Garfield.com website. Wholly separately, a company called US Email offered a webmail service from gmail.com. It was US Email that owned the gmail.com domain name, even though Garfield.com also offered a webmail service called "G-Mail." Sometime in the early 2000s US Email shut down and ownership of gmail.com passed through at least one other owner, a now-defunct Burbank law firm, before being obtained by Google in early 2004.

So yes, Garfield did once offer a Gmail service, but "he" never owned Gmail.com, and he never sold it to Google. Sorry for the confusion.

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In recent weeks Google has revamped the Gmail user interface. That's a big deal on several fronts, not least because Gmail is arguably Google's second-most popular consumer product, behind Google Search. Google currently estimates that over a quarter of a billion people use Gmail.

Moreover, the Gmail interface is one of two reasons the free webmail service was instantly popular upon its initial release in 2004. (The other reason was the then-unfathomable gigabyte of storage; observers assumed the storage limit -- and probably Gmail itself -- must have been one of Google's infamous April Fools' pranks). Gmail's so-called "conversation view" method to organize email reply strings was revolutionary amongst mainstream webmail products at the time, and remains perhaps the most compelling feature of the service.

Of course, when discussing reasons for trepidation surrounding Gmail product updates, you can't overlook Google Buzz. A rather ham-fisted attempt to emulate Twitter, Buzz also had the unwelcome side effect of publicizing much of every Gmail user's contact list by default. It was a glaring misstep that damaged Google's general reputation and -- due to its inexorable integration with the webmail service -- Gmail's standing, as well.

In light of these recent gaffes, it's sometimes easy to forget that, when it was first released, Gmail invites were in such high demand that an entire aftermarket cropped up on eBay, with Gmail access selling for $150 per account at the height of the boom.

All told, there's a great deal of history and interest tied up in gmail.com -- which is interesting, considering Google's webmail service is the second free online email provider to reside at that domain. A decidedly non-technical entertainment outfit debuted the original Gmail product, but they sold out when Google came calling for the domain.

WHO OWNED THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF GMAIL.COM?

Editor's note: On April 9, 2015, we published an update to this article that provides the answer to this Geek Trivia question. We apologize for any confusion.

If you owned an @gmail.com mail address prior to 2004, there's a pretty high probability that you were a big fan of the comic strip Garfield by Jim Davis. The Garfield.com online version of the world-famous newspaper comic once offered a free Garfield-branded webmail service at gmail.com.

Little record of this service survives (we couldn't even track down a screenshot), but the gmail.com domain was registered in 1995 -- before Google or Google.com even existed. The complete domain ownership record is private, but Gmail was held by Garfield.com's owners up until Google bought it in 2004. After Google's Gmail purchase, Garfield fans were routed to e-garfield.com for their lasagna-loving cartoon cat-based free webmail needs.

This isn't the only domain issue that Google has had to work around for Gmail. A German company, Giersch Ventures, owned a trademark for G-mail, which forced Google to offer German customers googlemail.com webmail addresses.

Perhaps these minor complications are why, in June of 2005, Google changed Gmail's canonical URL from http://gmail.google.com/gmail/ to http://mail.google.com/mail/. Wherever you find it, Gmail has survived these issues and more to remain the most sought-after free webmail service on the planet.

That's not just some POP3-popping staying-power, it's an IMAP-compatible instance of Geek Trivia.

The quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best quibble from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the Sept. 30, 2011 edition of Geek Trivia, which asked what English town is infamous for its role in testing early profanity filters?

Member AnsuGisalas felt compelled to enumerate all the possible classes of word-confusion out there:

Bank and bank and bank are homonyms.

If they are spelled differently, but spoken the same, they are heterographic homophones.

There, they're and their are heterographic homophones.

If they are written the same, but pronounced differently, they are heterophonic homographs.

Desert and desert are heterophonic homographs

There lots of confusion, which is likely intentional, since this is really just a standard three-bit (triple binary) variation: Meaning match 1 or 0, Spelling match 1 or 0, Pronounciation match 1 or 0 (I'll call this set MSP)

M1S1P1 = these are instances of the same lexeme (same meaning, sound and writing)

M1S0P1 = these are words with one meaning, and one pronounciation, but different writings - word sets like "thru/through" and "color/colour".

M1S1P0 = similarly, these are words with one meaning, one spelling but different pronunciations, this obviously is usually a case of dialectal differences, like the famous song by the Gershwins "Let's call the whole thing off".

M0S1P1 = these are Homographic Homophones (which are called homonyms - so far so good)

M0S0P1 = these are Heterographic Homophones (which are called heterographs - slightly confusing)

M0S1P0 = these are heterophonic homographs (which are very confusingly called heteronyms or less confusingly, heterophones)

M1S0P0 = these are words which are not spelled the same, nor spoken the same, but mean the same... in other words they are synonyms.

M0S0P0 = this set of values describes the relationship between the vast majority (I believe it's warranted this time, Santeewelding) of lexemes; they don't mean the same, they're not spelled the same, and they're not pronounced the same, either. Since these are heterophonic heterographs, this is what makes me think the above naming conventions seem to be intentionally confusing.

I'll endeavor to be equally thorough in my future etymological inquisitions. Thanks for the clarification, and keep those quibbles coming!

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

4 comments
seanferd
seanferd

I'll be Mr. Obvious and say the quibble is hiding behind the word "version". In the intra-title zone, you can replace "version" with "domain name". Elsewhere with (± similar) "name", trademark", or "domain name". That quibbleable material is too easily found, so maybe it's misdirection. What about the use of some form of "etymological" in the previous quibble and its antecedent article? Now I just feel pedantic, and not quibbly at all. Nothing debatable of note here. Maybe Waldo really is well hidden. :) Cool history of gmail. Still like Ansu's orthography-plus* chart, too. _ * Whatever you'd actually call this, I have no idea.

richard.s
richard.s

Next week when I venture to London's Silicon Roundabout (aka Tech City) I'll be wearing my G&R necktie: My usual protest about Google 'pinching' the GMail name. During the early 1990s, I had an account on the GMAIL X.400 messaging service provided by the Anglo-Norwegian company Gallagher & Robertson AS. (G&R) We had several useful products from G&R.

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