We are gathered here today to lay to rest Google Inbox. Google’s alternative email client was a radical rethink of how email should work, but as has been the case with many edge-case Google products, the company is opting to pull the plug on Inbox. The scheduled shutdown date is today, and Inbox users will be forced to switch back to Gmail.
But we’re not here to mourn Inbox’s death; we’re here to celebrate its life. Many of the ideas and features of Google Inbox have been spun off across the Google ecosystem, and while there is sadly still no viable replacement for an Inbox-style email client, the spirit of Inbox can live on in the features it inspired in other products. Preserved here for future generations, this is what Google Inbox was like.
When the Gmail team set out to create Inbox, it totally rethought how an Inbox should work. The team came up with a lot of new ideas, but radically reworking the Gmail UI would open a can of worms apparently nobody on the Gmail team really wanted to touch. (I mean, have you seen the reaction to the comparatively minor Gmail redesign?) The result was Google Inbox: an alternative interface for your Gmail account. It was all your mail, contacts, drafts, and other information from Gmail, just with a UI full of new features and a new design paradigm. Gmail users that loved Gmail could keep using Gmail, but for users that wanted to try a new way of triaging email, Inbox was just a URL away.
I once heard someone say that “email is a to-do list other people make for you,” and it really seems like the Gmail team took this to heart when they designed Inbox. Inbox looked like a to-do list, with a big, colorful list of emails and friendly artwork. A “pin” feature would let you keep certain emails in your Inbox, and instead of Gmail’s “archive” or “delete” options for completed email threads, emails were marked as “Done” in Inbox. If you didn’t want to deal with an email immediately, you could snooze it or turn it into an actual reminder, with one of the first Google Reminder implementations.
While Inbox was the debut of a lot of features that ended up in other Google products, there was still a ton about Inbox that made it unique. For Inbox users forced to transfer back to Gmail, it’s going to be a tough transition. The bottom line is that without many of Inbox’s best features, managing email is going to take more time, more configuration, and more clicks.
The beauty of bundles
Before we dive into the beauty of Inbox’s “Bundle” features, let’s talk about Gmail’s manual analog: filters and labels. Gmail’s filters act like a search operation that is continually run on all your incoming email, letting you perform an operation on any of the matching messages. For instance, you can constantly scan for any emails from Facebook and send them to spam. You can search for emails from your boss and star them or mark them as “Important” (or maybe trash them).
Gmail shines when you program your filters to add labels to things. For example, everything from Amazon could get a colored “Amazon” label, and with a single click you can see all your Amazon messages. Everything from work can get a “Work” label. Program enough Gmail filters and you can turn your inbox into an email organizing machine.
Gmail’s filters and labels are incredibly powerful, but they are a ton of work to set up. Out of the box, Gmail doesn’t really filter or label anything, and setting up filters is a bit like being a basic computer programmer. You need to think about how a typical email is structured and what search terms will catch the emails you want while leaving out the emails you don’t want. Writing an effective Gmail filter takes some research and trial-and-error, so it’s not for computer novices.
Everyone uses email, though, so taking a computer programmer’s approach to an email organization system isn’t going to work for everyone. Enter Google Inbox, with the new concept of “Bundles”—basically filters and labels that Google writes for you.
Google Inbox’s bundles were like filters and labels, but automatic. Inbox could automatically file incoming emails into seven different categories: “Trips,” “Purchases,” “Finance,” “Social,” “Updates,” “Forums,” and “Promos.” These categories wouldn’t mess with emails from actual people but would instead cover most of the automated emails people receive. Google did the hard work of sorting emails into each category the same way it detects spam: machine-learning magic applied to the billions of emails that flow through Google’s servers every day. The automation was a huge deal here; while you could write Gmail filters and labels that replicated a lot of this functionality, Inbox did this filtering automatically, for everyone, regardless of their technical ability or desire to program their email client.
Before the launch of Inbox, Gmail tried two other less-ambitious forms of automatic filtering called “Categories” and “Smart Labels.” Smart Labels were the first swing at automatic labels with only three categories (“Bulk,” “Notification,” and “Forum”) but as a Gmail Lab feature that you had to dig for, adoption was most likely limited. Categories was basically the Labs-graduated version of Smart Labels, now with five categories, but the groupings weren’t nearly as useful as Inbox’s bundles.
Gmail’s UI for categories was pretty awful, too. It used a confusing, click-heavy tab layout that split your inbox up into five sections that you had to pick through (wasn’t the whole point of using labels over folders to not hide all your messages like this?). As a feature on top of your existing filters, possibly used in conjunction with Smart Labels, Categories was more complicated on top of the already complicated Gmail. What was needed was a fresh start, better categories, and a and a new UI…
Listing image by Getty / Aurich Lawson