Review of Google Inbox
January 20, 2018
Last week, Google announced that it was removing the invitation-only status to its new Inbox product. Google appears to be pitching Inbox as a next generation version of Gmail. Gmail is still there. Inbox is provides a modernized way of accessing your email. Gmail and Inbox work against the same set of stored messages, filters, and contacts. You can switch between them easily.
Android consists of a web app, an Android app, and an iOS app. I reviewed both the web app and the iOS app. The two are very similar. The iOS app feels fast, like a native Google-themed iOS app. If the iOS app acting as a wrapper around the remote web app, nothing about its interface or responsiveness makes it apparent. However, the iOS app and web app are remarkably consistent with each other. I do not have an Android device with which to test, but I would guess the Android app is very similar to the iOS app &emdash; perhaps with tighter integration into the Android operating system.
Look and Feel
Inbox looks and feels like a simplified version of Gmail. There are fewer visible controls. There is no ability to select multiple threads and perform bulk operations on those threads. The user is presented with labels on the left, message threads on the right, and a minimal toolbar at the top. When a message thread is opened, the thread appears to open in place within the message list.
Google Apps admins can specify a company logo, and this company logo appears in place of the Gmail logo inside the Gmail interface. This company logo does not appear in the Inbox interface. I miss the company logo because it helped me to quickly remember or determine whether I was looking at mail for my personal Google account or for my company Google account. With Inbox, I have to either look at the messages or specifically check the account.
Inbox lets you mark a thread “Done”. The result of marking a thread Done is its removal from the Inbox. If you navigate to a message no longer in the inbox, you can un-mark it Done. It will be linked to the inbox again. In this respect, marking a message done in Inbox is equivalent to archiving a message in Gmail.
If you snooze a message, the message is marked done (archived) until a date and time of your choosing. When that date and time arrives, Inbox will put the message back into your inbox. On iOS, a notification banner will appear at the end of the snooze period.
As an alternative to snoozing until a specific date and time, you can choose to snooze until you arrive at a particular location with your mobile device. This did not work for me reliably. I would set messages to snooze until I arrived at home. Long after I arrived at home, the messages were still snoozed. I have had very similar issues with Apple's Reminders app.
You can accessed messages that are currently snoozed by navigating to the “Snoozed” label. This label is only available in the Inbox app. It is not available in Gmail and in IMAP clients. You can find snoozed messages in Gmail by searching for “label:snoozed”. Like other messages that are marked done, snoozed messages appear under “All Mail” in Gmail and in IMAP clients, but without any indication that they are snoozed.
Message threads can be Pinned. Pinning adds the message to the Inbox if it is not in it already. While in the Inbox, pinning makes a thread immune to a Sweep button, which marks all threads as Done.
I do not see myself using this functionality.
TODO: Revisit as it pertains to trips/purchases/etc.
Labels and Filters
Gmail introduced the concept of applying labels to message threads when it launched in 2004, and it has had filters since its inception. In Gmail, a message filter lets you apply a set of actions that apply to matching messages. One of those message actions is archiving (removing from the Inbox). Another is applying a label.
Inbox offers similar functionality, but its user interface presents filters as actions associated with individual labels. When you create a label, Inbox offers to associate new incoming messages that meet your criteria with that label. An unfortunate omission is the ability to apply a new label to all existing messages meeting the specified criteria. Inbox shows what messages those would be as a method of helping you to verify the criteria, but provides no way to make the filter apply to these messages.
Interestingly, Inbox provides no way to associate a message with more than one user-created label. A message can be associated with multiple labels as the result of filters or actions taken in Gmail, but Inbox only allows you to move a message from one label to another. This is not a problem for me, but surprises me.
For labels with criteria to automatically add new messages, Inbox offers to bundle matching messages in the inbox. If enabled, Inbox will collapse new incoming messages automatically applied to that label into a bundle and show them as one item in your inbox. You can navigate into that bundle to see all of its new messages. You can also specify whether new messages meeting this criteria warrant notifications. Messages meeting this criteria will never affect the application badge number.
The web app does not show the label notification setting, probably because it does not apply to web-only users. While this is understandable, I think it is an unfortunate omission. It is inconsistent with the decision to allow the user to snooze a message until the user arrives at a destination. The setting is synchronized across iOS devices.
You can elect to have bundled messages appear in your inbox only once a day at 7:00 AM, or once a week at 7:00 AM. If set and if notifications are enabled for the label, the notification banner will not appear until the Show Bundle time.
Messages in inbox bundles appear individually in Gmail and in IMAP clients, even when not shown in Inbox because of the once a day or week setting.
If you turn off “Bundle messages in the inbox” for a label, you also choose whether message should be marked as done (skipping the inbox) when they arrive. There is no Notifications setting. You will be notified about new messages if they stay in your inbox, you will not be notified about new messages if they are immediately marked as done.
Inbox introduces the concept of a Reminder. A Reminder looks and operates much like an email message thread: it can be snoozed, and marked as done. A reminder cannot be labeled with anything other than the Inbox, Snoozed, or Trash labels. A reminder contains just a line of reminder text.
Reminders are pinned by default. Pinning and unpinning reminders does not work for me at all right now, but I would guess this to be the result of a bug in the current version (1.3.0) that is likely to be fixed soon.
Reminders are not visible in the Gmail interface or in IMAP clients.
In the web interface, messages are composed in a small area of the Inbox web window. It is very similar to the way in which messages are composed in the Gmail interface. All outgoing messages are sent as HTML, with a plain text alternative. The web app allows you to format text with boldface, italics, and underlines. It also allows you to create bulleted lists, numbered lists, and links.
The iOS app gives you the full screen in which to compose outgoing messages. The iOS app provides no formatting options, but still sends outgoing messages as HTML with a plain text alternative. The app, particularly on the iPad, would benefit from a way to share the screen real estate with other messages.
When replying to an existing message, on either the iOS app or the iPad, replies are composed right underneath the original messages. You can reply to the sender or reply to all, although neither the iOS app nor the web app make replying to just the sender particularly intuitive.
One weakness that I did not even think of when writing that post is that the API does not support any of the Inbox features. The Gmail API works against the same message store, but it has no concept of snoozing threads, pinning threads, or reminders. It also has no ability to see or manage any kind of filters.
The iOS app and the web app are very similar, but the iOS feels native and very responsive. I honestly cannot tell whether or to what extent the iOS app might be wrapping the web app. It seems likely to me that the iOS app is using an API that Google has not made public. I hope Google does make this API public. It would allow for a native Google Inbox app on platforms for which Google has not written one, such as the Mac. It would also allow me to support Inbox-specific features in my Mac app, CloudPull.