(Courtesy of Google)
There is hope for your inbox yet.
On Wednesday, Google unveiled a new email app for iOS, Android, and desktop Web browsers, named Inbox. It’s a more graphical, more organized email communication center that includes built-in snooze buttons, attachment previews, automatic labeling and filing, and intelligent search. For those of you who think of “Inbox Zero” as some far-off Xanadu, this may be the thing to tame the unwieldy beast that is your email account.
Though you currently must request access to the app by emailing Google, it’s likely that the company is aiming to eventually replace its original mobile Gmail app — and maybe even the desktop version — with this more sophisticated solution. And, man, is it sophisticated, in ways that are not apparent at first from its blocky, friendly interface.
It reads your email for you
To begin, the app analyzes the language of your emails, and automatically categorizes them into a few basic sections: Travel, Purchases, Finance, Social, Updates, Forums, and Promos. There is a navigational bar on the left for the sections:
Mostly you’ll notice these labels within the mish-mash of your regular inbox. That’s because each category has a unique icon and text color that appears as a tag above your messages. (This is a godsend for someone like me, who was never organized enough to create labels and tag my own emails with them). Any email related to financial transactions, loan payments, or stock options, for example, will be found under the header of a green stock chart icon. Any reservations made with a train line or airline will be denoted by a purple plane, and so on.
These categories prove to be particularly helpful when Inbox evaluates the content of a message and pushes relevant info to the surface of your home screen. For instance, my recent purchases — headed by a brown shopping cart — are all bundled together, with images of the things I ordered and their shipping status. Without ever having to open a boring, robot-generated email, I know that the candle I bought from Anthropologie is on its way, and the umbrella I ordered from Amazon is out of stock. (Side note: It is not lost on me that this kind of automated digital prying is unsettling for people particularly paranoid about their privacy. If that’s you, then don’t use this app).
Though this distilled information might seem like no big deal at first, it’s invaluable considering the way people now use email as a personal data center. When I go to open my email on my phone, I’m not usually planning to casually read through 20 messages. Rather, I’m on a street corner, mid-transit, and it’s raining. I’m trying to find a reservation number, or an address, or a date. This distilled information helps cancel out the noise and helps me accomplish what I need to quickly, with less of a headache.
A useful feature allows you to preview multiple attachments underneath a subject line. It brings you to the Craigslist photo or cat pic chain you’re looking for immediately, without having to think about who sent you what, when. This is a huge improvement from Gmail’s current app, which doesn’t even have a traditional paper clip indicator to set apart messages that contain images or files.
It’s Google, so there’s search
There’s also an updated take on email search. You can type in any sort of normal human phrase — for instance, “Tim’s cell phone” — and the specially tuned search will know to bring up any seven-digit number associated with the name Tim (even if the word “phone” isn’t explicitly mentioned in that email).
You can also quickly create a reminder or compose a message to people you’ve recently been in touch with, by tapping the big red + button on the bottom-right corner of your home screen — a major design improvement to the tiny, pen symbols that usually float subtly at the top of your inbox.
Finally we have the more radical additions: options to snooze, pin, or sweep away messages, depending on an email’s urgency and your energy to deal with it. So, if you swipe left on a subject line, a box will pop up asking you to create a timed reminder to deal with it later. This helpful feature, I assume, is meant to solve the storied problem of the “buried” item — a thing you may have read on your phone and then promptly forgotten about, because minutes later you met a friend for after-work drinks, and sometimes you just can’t deal with it all.
Pinning, on the other hand, is a categorical option you can choose after you actually open and read an email. If you know the message you’ve received is one you’ll need to access again soon, then you tap a tack icon at the top of the page, which places the correspondence in a special pinned folder. You can access this pinned message on your home screen by again toggling a tack icon, so only your reminders and important messages will appear. And if you’re feeling brave, there’s also an option to “sweep” your inbox — marking everything as done aside from what’s been pinned.
Pinning, sweeping, or ignoring
But I’d say that this is where the app gets overwhelming. It’s unclear to me, so far, what’s important enough to pin in Inbox and what can be swiped to the right, and categorized as “done.” I know Google wants to eliminate the anxiety that comes with a little red icon that says you have 7,000 emails in your inbox, but I don’t trust myself enough to know what needs pinning and what can be swept away. Plans or conversations come back from the dead all the time, and having to choose which ones I deem worthy enough to keep around requires extra mental work. Maybe this is why I’ll always be doomed to live an Inbox Zero-less existence. And maybe at the end of the day that’s OK, as long as I have maintained my sanity.
I think it’s OK to ignore the pinning and sweeping for now, if you want. Google Inbox is an excellent organizational tool. Try it as soon as soon as you can. It might just make you a more responsible person.
To request an invitation, email email@example.com.