Kenyan developer who tried making Gmail faster


 Google recently launched their social networking site, Google+. Twitter and mailing lists like Skunkworks have been abuzz with people requesting for invites from those lucky enough to have received invites and joined the service. 7 years ago, Google launched their now popular email service, Gmail, in a similar fashion.

Three years later, Gmail was to open to the public. In Kenya, Gmail could not have had a better timing as it was launched at a time when the Internet was experiencing a huge growth in the region. Many young people in Kenya joined into the Gmail bandwagon.

Gmail users in Kenya however faced a major challenge — the region was not connected to undersea fiber cable, this would only happen towards the end of 2009. Internet access was expensive and quite slow as the country relied on satellite connectivity. This meant that email services like Gmail, using its heavy Ajax interface, took quite a while to load, at times failing to load.

John Karanja is one of the early users and a fan of Gmail. Karanja was concerned about the time it took to perform transactions on his favorite email client. As a developer, Karanja was convinced that he could make the situation better. He then set out to make Gmail faster to access, and it worked – that is until he Google’s legal department contacted him.

We talked to Karanja on his efforts, and what happened to them.

How did you conceptualize the idea?

The idea arose out of a problem I was having with accessing my Gmail account back in 2007 which I was using to communicate with my clients. I was freelancing in a cyber cafe and when many people in the café where accessing the internet, we could not access Gmail because of low bandwidth problem. This meant that I was delaying my client’s projects and it became very frustrating for me. I then came across an open source tool that made use of the Google mail API (Application Programming Interface) on the internet.

How did you do the development of How many developers were involved and how long did it take you?

The open source tool provided most of the functionality. Together with the help of my friend Steve Gitau we made a few customizations and developed a theme applicable to Kenya.Some of the tools I used include Macromedia Dreamweaver for design and development, PHP Zend for coding and development, XAMP for building and testing the platform, Adobe Photoshop for branding the site and a PHP/MYSQL Shared server for hosting the platform.

Reception and usage of the application

The application was well received initially as I was working in a collaborative set up in a cyber cafe with other developers such as @kachwanya (Kennedy Kachwanya) Founder of and @raidarmax (David Mugo) Founder of who were my first users and from there it spread quite quickly through our networks. We were all power users of Gmail because it provided us with all the tools our small businesses needed at that time so they were happy with it.

However the Google mail API did not allow us to track users specifically so I couldn’t tell usage from hits, but only through the Ad impressions I was making.By the end of the first week I had made USD 25 on Adsense which was quite an achievement then because they were not too many users of the Internet and Gmail at that time. If it wasn’t for Google’s legal team stepping in, I am pretty sure I could have hit USD 400 by the end of the first month.

When did Google’s legal team contact you and how did you resolve the dispute?

Within 2 weeks since the launch of the faster and optimized, I got a cease and desist from Google amidst the service’s quick spread and adoption. I came to understand later that I could not use the domain with a service affiliated to them because that would be a violation of their trademark in America.

I obliged and transferred the application to a different domain. I transferred the domain to their affiliate in Nairobi as they did not have an office in Africa then. The new domain did not receive as much interest as the initial one as users were not aware of its presence.

What else have you done since the launch of , including Whive.

Since then I have developed a mail service in 2008 which I had to shut down because it was becoming too expensive to run. The Gmail and PostKenya service taught me many things regarding legal and business side of a start up and it is this experience that I have carried with me to which is a social media platform for Africa that I am running at the moment.


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