Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has launched its latest mobile effort, Inbox, which promises to turn email into a better productivity tool. Being on a limited invitation-only scheme, Google is set to duplicate its earlier marketing scheme when Gmail originally launched, creating much demand for a supposedly scarce product. With some of Inbox’s features already present in certain mobile apps like Dropbox’s Mailbox, however, will Inbox live up to the hype and change email communication for the better?
When Google launched its Gmail service to the public in 2004, the company promised to reinvent how Internet users emailed. Instead of the usual one-message view that email users have grown accustomed to, Gmail defaulted to a threaded/conversation view. This resulted in a learning curve for some, although with its invitation-only beta scheme, artificial demand had been created, and users sought Gmail as an object of geek pride and accomplishment.
Gmail has since grown to be the top web mail provider, and Google has also extended its use as an enterprise communications and collaboration tool through Google Apps. Going beyond the refresh in email interfaces, Gmail was actually a work-in-progress for several years, retaining the “beta” badge that meant its owner was still actively doing development. Features that started out as opt-in Google Labs options were later on added as basic functionalities. These included integrated instant messaging, text messaging, scheduling and the like. Gmail has now grown to become a full-fledged productivity platform, incorporating Calendar, Contacts, and even spinning out some features into refreshed mobile services like Google Voice and Hangouts.
Email – refreshed
With Inbox, Google aims to improve on the mobile experience. The refresh came about with the idea that with the rise of social media and connected-everything, email and mobile users are bombarded with a lot of messages and may have difficulty filtering out the good ones from the useless ones. “With this evolution comes new challenges: we get more email now than ever, important information is buried inside messages, and our most important tasks can slip through the cracks—especially when we’re working on our phones,” writes Sundar Pichai, Senior Vice President for Android, Chrome and Apps. “For many of us, dealing with email has become a daily chore that distracts from what we really need to do—rather than helping us get those things done.”
“We decided, ‘What if we cleared our minds, started fresh, and built something new to help people get back to what mattered to them?’” said Gmail product director Alex Gawley, in an interview with the New York Times. “What if we did more of the work for them?”
The result is a two-year development period for what is intended as a long-term replacement for Gmail. The developers have built Inbox’s interface to resemble a social network news feed, in which relevant content from messages like pictures, quotes and other dynamic information. Google Inbox also features cards reminiscent of Google Now, which display flight information, reminders, package tracking, photos, and the like.
Inbox works on mobile devices (Android and iOS included), as well as Chrome for desktop use. To reflect the latest UI focus of Google in the latest Android 5.0 Lollipop, Inbox subscribes to Material Design, which means aggressive navigation bar colors, smooth animations and crisp copy. What makes Inbox stand out, however, is that it is essentially a Google Now version of one’s email inbox, complete with context-based recommendations and card metaphors.
It’s still Gmail
One might ask whether this is not just a duplication of efforts that third-party app developers like Mailbox (acquired by Dropbox) have done over the years. After all, Mailbox already treats emails as “tasks” and actionable items that users can snooze, reschedule and mark as “done”. The main difference, however, is that Inbox is an effort done in-house, so it has direct access to users’ Gmail data, instead of having to rely on IMAP, with all its synchronization and speed issues.
This means that Inbox is essentially a client meant to replace Gmail, incorporating features from other Google applications. However, users can still use the original Gmail interface if so needed. Still, Inbox goes beyond simply acting as an email client. Using Gmail’s data mining capabilities and meta web content, it will pull relevant information based on email content. For example, emails regarding your flight reservation will come complete with a card with flight information and updates. The same goes for emails with hotel bookings and other reservations.
Inbox also adds to the categorization feature that Gmail uses to group priority email, social media updates, forum alerts and other updates. With the “bundles” feature, Inbox can automatically organize content like receipts, depending on how the user trains it.
And when the situation calls for a user to simply delay action on a message, there’s the “snooze” function, which will alert the user for action later on — useful while on-the-go.
How to get it
Google wants Inbox to be a mobile-first experience, so users will need to download the Android or iOS apps in order to activate their Gmail account for Inbox use. However, the service is currently by-invite only. Google will be sending out invitations to users, and requests can be sent via firstname.lastname@example.org. Users who have Inbox can then invite friends to activate their own — exactly how Gmail started out.
With the promise of a fresh new interface and with a marketing plan with viral focus, it’s 2004 all over again.