Inbox: Google’s “Experiment” in Reinventing Email

Inbox Icon

Yesterday I finally got my invite to Google’s new Inbox, an Android app and companion desktop site. It’s not a replacement for Gmail—at least not yet—but yet another Google “experiment” that will exist alongside it.

As someone who deals with hosted email from no less than five domains, Gmail has been a welcome respite from IMAP issues, TSL certificates and the like. And now Inbox seeks to make email even more useful, organizing my messages for me and putting the important ones front and centre exactly when I need them. It’s a compelling idea and if you believe the hype, an reinvention of email itself.

Is it right for you? Let’s take a look.

Here’s the attachment to the first message you’ll see in your new Inbox, a tutorial on how to make sense of your new email experience. For my own walkthrough I’ll be using screen grabs from the app’s Play Store listing—that way I won’t have to black out big chunks of each screen.

Inbox Interface

Here’s the basic Inbox interface. Gmail’s standard “many lines of text” have been replaced with something more interesting. Useful, even…

If you subscribe to the inbox zero philosophy then Google’s new take on email may not be for you; Inbox wants messages done rather than read. So wow do you mark a message as done? In the screen above you can hit the “sweep” button (the check mark with the lopsided hamburger menu beside it) to dismiss all messages from that day. You can also dismiss individual messages, or pin them—that is, keep them at the top of you queue to act on later.

Inbox Calendar Invites

Another Inbox innovation is bundles, Google’s attempt to pre-sort your incoming messages for you. The default bundles are:

Travel
Purchases
Finance
Social
Updates
Forums
Promos

At the moment you can neither add to nor edit this list. But if you use a lot of labels in Gmail you’ll be relieved to know that they carry over to Inbox—just not as bundles.

One more thing about this screen: calendar invites now stand out more, though on a KitKat-powered device I still can’t open an email invite in my native Android calendar app. ಠ_ಠ

Inbox Actions

Like any other good Lollipop-ready app, Inbox has a very prominent and Material Design-y action button in the lower right corner—in this case a compose button. A nice added feature for a new message is a list of shortcuts to people you email often.

As for the reminders, I honestly don’t get why Google is so dead set on integrating to-dos into email. If I remember my history correctly, tasks support appeared in Gmail before Google Calendar. I agree that “actioning” an email is a compelling idea, but combining email and to-dos altogether seems a bit arbitrary; I’m not sure if it qualifies as innovation or not.

Inbox Reminders

At any rate, to transform an email into a to-do item, you “snooze” it—that is, set an alarm for it to reappear as a notification on your desktop and/or device. Like I say, it’s not a bad idea. At present, though, there’s no way to annotate an incoming message with additional information.

As for a proper reminder (one that you compose yourself) it will, like sweeped emails, still be accessible once you’ve completed it. Unfortunately the data doesn’t carry over to Google Tasks proper, so there’s no easy way to export it to a usable file format. I guess you could always make do with a copy-paste job from a desktop browser…

Inbox is a very different experience from Gmail, that’s for sure. I think Google did the right thing in making it separate, if parallel, to its forebear. And for now I have to say I’m intrigued. I can see Inbox getting even more useful as I pipe more data into it. Whether or not it will permanently replace Gmail will all come down to how much I want Google to know about me—a question I suppose every Android user has to face at some point.