Google reinvents email (again) with Inbox

Connor Mason
  • Connor Mason
  • October 22, 2014
Google reinvents email (again) with Inbox

Android isn’t the only Google product getting a facelift. Today, Google’s Gmail team unveiled a new take on email called Inbox, a Material Design–infused messaging reinterpretation designed for mobile and Google Chrome. Functionally a Gmail client, Inbox rearranges your Gmail messages and conversations into actionable “Bundles” and adds new functionality for email triage. The app is launching for Android, iOS, and desktop web, but Gmail fans need to specifically request an invitation from the Gmail Inbox team to get access. Inbox is a fresh take on email, but it’s nothing new—in fact, today’s email product is the newest in Google’s long line of email disruptors.

Gmail, it’s easy to forget, revolutionized how webmail operated in 2004. Boasting an enormous storage cap and innovative new features like Labels and Filters, Gmail greatly simplified the process of email for millions of Google customers. But the product was still based on 30-year-old email technologies, and mobile clients have still been reliant on temperamental IMAP protocols to access Gmail messages. The new Gmail API is set to replace the need for IMAP in third-party Gmail clients and apps by enabling quick access to Gmail exclusives like Labels, Conversations, and Search. But it’s simply not enough: Google isn’t happy with the tired email metaphors, and so the company has routinely set out to reshape them.

In 2009, Google introduced a new take on web communication called Google Wave. It was billed as “email for the 21st century” and included live-updating conversation threads that showed contacts’ progress as they typed. Wave morphed email, message boards, and chat into one overhyped amalgam, but it wasn’t long for this world. Like Inbox, Wave was based on an invitation-only model that limited uptake to a handful of early adopters, but despite fervent community enthusiasm Google shuttered the project in 2010.

A lot has changed in four years. Whereas Wave was built on the web, and pushed the boundaries of browser capabilities in 2009, Inbox is designed mobile-first, with Android 5.0 Lollipop’s Material Design guidelines as its founding principles. Building on Gmail’s Priority Inbox features, which separate promotional messages and social notifications into distinct tabs, Inbox organizes similarly themed messages into smart Bundles for travel, purchases, and more. Where Gmail offers stars (in standard email parlance, flags) to keep track of important or actionable messages, Inbox offers pins and reminders to keep important information up front. This is the theme with Inbox: email metaphors users are comfortable with, remixed for a new decade.

The new features in Google Inbox are informed by Google’s latest flagship technologies. Prioritization of contextual information presented in cards or stacks is borrowed directly from Google Now. Interface improvements and new user experience flows are dictated by Material Design. Android users accustomed to Google Now will find comfort in Inbox’s automatic categorization and simplification of their email onslaught. Longtime Google Tasks users or recent Google Keep advocates will enjoy Inbox’s reinvention of notes and reminders. Inbox doesn’t only reimagine how email should operate and behave, it combines and repurposes some of Google’s most innovative recent hits.

Inbox isn’t designed to replace Gmail. On the contrary: the app glorifies Gmail as a platform, serving as a first-party client that allows users to manage email in a more comfortable and friendly environment. It borrows ideas from Google Wave, incorporates learnings from Gmail’s 10-year history, and demonstrates an awareness of email triage tools like Mailbox and Accompli. Most importantly, it represents what Google believes is the next chapter in email’s story. In an age of instant chat and notification fatigue, Inbox is designed to deliver on Google Wave’s abandoned promise.


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