Google Inbox: Early Review

04 November 2014

Google has a new app that revamps the Gmail experience: Inbox. It's still in beta / invite-only mode, but I was lucky enough to get in. So far, I've loved it.

Inbox is a pretty clear shot at what might be considered the biggest email app competitor that Gmail has, namely Dropbox's Mailbox. In fact, a lot of the design and UX look eerily similar to Mailbox, but overall Inbox feels like what the Gmail app should've become a long time ago.

Previous Complaints

I never knew that accessing Gmail on my phone could be such an area of innovation and attention - at least not until I switched from an Android to an iPhone.

On Android, everything worked pretty well with the native Gmail app. On iOS, however, things start to get uncomfortable. Using the native iOS Mail app is passable, but you lose a lot of functionality that Gmail offers. Third-party apps like Mailbox also exist, but my biggest complaint about Mailbox is that it attempts to apply a certain "philosophy" to your email usage, and aside from that, there are still some Gmail features that are not easy to use. In addition, the email pushing to an app like Mailbox is sometimes a bit lagged, and recently there was an API change that stopped push notifications altogether!

Gmail also has an app for iOS, but it was surprisingly subpar. My biggest complaint was how slow it was; while Mailbox felt pretty snappy, the Gmail app was incredibly sluggish, and would often be trying to sync my inbox for over a minute. The app was clunky to use and didn't look as fresh as some of the third-party options.

Introducing Inbox, a beautiful new Gmail

The Gmail team can definitely be excused for the older, clunkier Gmail app, since now it's apparent that they've been hard at work on a much better replacement.

Even at first glance, Inbox looks much nicer. Things are somehow cleaner, even with senders' profile pictures and attachment previews in the main inbox view. There are plenty of sensible icons floating around to help navigate. And, the introductory tutorial and the rest of the app carries a distinctively Google aesthetic and color scheme.

But even the small details in design are well appreciated. The sliding animations all seem a bit smoother. Some new UI features, like a prominent red circle with a "+" in the lower right-hand corner, invite exploration and are completely sensible. Even the animated wheel that shows up when your inbox is loading is elegant in a simple way.

Dominated by the swipes, much like Mailbox

One of the main UI features of Dropbox's Mailbox was the swiping. A small swipe to the right would archive an email, a long swipe to the right would delete, and so on. An innovative feature of Mailbox was the ability to 'snooze' an email until later: if you did a quick swipe to the left, you could choose when the email would reappear in your inbox.

The old Gmail app had some swiping capabilities, as does the native iOS Mail app. However, Inbox now has the swipe feature, and it's as smooth as it is in Mailbox.

There are a couple of big differences with the Inbox swipe. One is that there are only two actions available by swipe: marking "done" to the right, and "snoozing" to the left. There isn't a concept of a "long swipe", and in addition, you can't really customize the swiping at all.

What I think is interesting about the decision to adopt swiping is that now Gmail is implicitly adopting the same "email philosophy" as Mailbox. A core Mailbox principle is the idea of inbox zero; the aim is to use your inbox almost like a to-do list, and the goal is to keep it empty. Thus, there are a lot of features in Mailbox that support this philosophy, like swiping and an app badge notification with the total number of threads in your inbox (not just unread threads). The imposition of this email philosophy was probably the feature of Mailbox I disliked the most; I prefer to keep emails in my inbox as reference, so inbox zero was never my goal.

Inbox seems to take a more lenient email philosophy. The snoozing and "marking done" suggests some element of using your inbox like a to-do list. However, you can now also easily "pin" items to your inbox, which will save them from the other button that automatically archives everything (inbox bankruptcy, anybody?). Instead of trying to change how you use email, Inbox instead seems to offer you more functionality for using your email however you want. Instead of taking away features to simplify the UX, Inbox offers you a more complete set.

Bundling: potentially useful

Bundling is a key feature of Inbox. The bundles act in the same way that the "tabs" in your Gmail web view work - Gmail intelligently sorts your mail into themes like "Social", "Travel", or "Finance", and now will collect them all under those labels in your mobile inbox.

So far, the categorization of emails into one of their ~7 categories has been fairly accurate. However, I've never really gotten used to this categorization scheme, and I prefer to see every email individually. Thankfully, Inbox makes it really easy to turn specific bundles off. All in all, this is pretty congruent with the idea of offering the user more optional features so they can use their email as they want.

Reminders: interesting new direction?

Through the prominent red "+" button mentioned above, you can now create "Reminders". This relates to the same feature in Google Now, but essentially just adds a to-do item at the top of your inbox.

A couple of things about reminders are a bit strange to me. First, Inbox suggests autocompletions for you as you type your reminder. This might work well for common tasks (e.g. "Buy milk"), but it's not going to work well for very specific items. And Inbox does not seem to be drawing from only my history to create these suggestions; I've seen some very detailed ones from strangers as well.

Another part of this is that the reminders won't show up on your normal Gmail web view. This is a mobile-only feature, which makes it less appealing for someone who transitions frequently between mobile and web.

Overall, this is a relatively simple feature that fits into a view of the inbox as a to-do list. But, the feature is fairly avoidable if you don't want to use it, so it again is something great for users that use it, and is a non-issue for those who don't.

Predictions: Inbox will win mobile

To put it concisely, Inbox is a very well-done app. It's slick in both design and performance, and offers users a full set of features without being paternalistic like some third-party apps. Moreover, being created internally at Google has a powerful advantage, and I predict that it won't have as many problems with syncing or email pushing when compared with third-party apps.

Right now, Inbox is still invite-only. I'm not sure why this is, since the app seems to be working completely fine, and Google has more than enough resources to scale it up. But once it's officially released to everyone, I predict that Inbox could easily overtake Mailbox in popularity. Inbox would also have a slight advantage from a privacy point of view: Mailbox basically requires me to pass all my email through Dropbox's servers as well as Google's.

Finally, it's worth noting that there's also a new Inbox web view. This seems to apply the same new design and UI from the app to your Gmail web view. To be honest, I haven't really felt motivated to try this out - the same UI features that feel great on the phone feel a bit forced on the web, and I'm a bit too attached to the traditional Gmail view to really consider switching right now.

But all in all, Inbox has the potential to become the winner of this space. Welcome, Inbox, to the world of email apps - you're exactly what I've been waiting for.

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