RIP Google Inbox

Google has a proud tradition of shutting down services that become cult classics rather than smash hits. Examples include Google Reader, the Orkut social network and (to a much lesser extent) Google Plus. The latest addition to this hall of fame is Inbox, the app that revolutionised email (but only for those who knew about it), which will be shut down at the beginning of next month. Already its load time has been artificially lengthened and every page view blighted with an exhortation to switch back to Gmail.

I’ve put it off this long because I really, really like the Inbox approach to email and because I haven’t opened Gmail on either my PC or my smartphone since Inbox came out in 2015.

Goodnight, sweet prince.

I’m not so sure about 2015 me’s choice of background.

As the exhortation states, Google backported a few features originally trialled in Inbox over to Gmail, such as email snoozing and autoreplies (the logical conclusion of predictive text). But this is like piling a couple of the Titanic’s deck chairs onto a rowboat. What was revolutionary about Inbox was the workflow.

In a traditional email inbox, you have a long list of mails arranged in reverse chronological order. For the most part, they look the same – you can differentiate some important ones by marking them as unread (or starring them in Gmail), but even those quickly get lost in the deluge. If you’re smart and organised, you can write a bunch of mail rules to put things in special folders and then hope that (1) nothing gets miscategorised and (2) you don’t ever forget to check any of the important folders.

Inbox completely discarded that approach. The fundamental principle was archiving mails (or marking them as Done, in Inbox parlance). You marked emails you had dealt with as Done, and then they left the primary Inbox screen and went onto the Done screen. That way, your Inbox contained only important emails that you still needed to reply to or wanted to refer back to. All the spam and stuff you were done with went to the archive instead of drowning your important emails, and there was no need to use mark as unread. You could even pin super important emails to the top of the screen.

Inbox also learned what email you received and displayed each one accordingly. Unimportant promos and newsletters were bundled together, to be dealt with or dismissed as a single unit, and more personalised, irregular mails were shown on their own. As can be seen in the picture above, emails were split according to when they were received, giving you an at-a-glance view of what you still had to deal with and how long it had been sitting there.

Gmail, by contrast, just lumps everything together. At best it puts some of your emails in different tabs, but then you have to switch to those tabs to view them, rather than having the at-a-glance view of bundles. Emails are dated, but the time since you received them is not nearly so visible. You can archive emails you’re done with, but it’s not a central feature, and there’s no easy way to see your archive, just an All Mail button that’s hidden near the bottom of the sidebar.

Attachments are shown in the main inbox, but as little icons rather than Inbox’s full previews. I assume it shows at-a-glance flight details too, but probably not as nicely as Inbox did. Overall, going back to Gmail feels like stepping back into a time when email was worse.

I’ve had faint inklings that this was coming for a long time, but I mostly ignored them. Over the years, whenever I’d glance someone using the Gmail website or app, I’d think to myself, “oh, how quaint, they’re not using Inbox yet” and, if appropriate, would try to convert them. Because I was so immersed in Inbox, I fully expected Gmail itself to be deprecated and replaced by it.

But after Google first announced that it would be shutting down Inbox, I realised just how few people actually seemed to using it or even knew anything about it. I know maybe a handful of people who use Inbox for reasons other than my introducing them to it. I probably wouldn’t even be using it if a friend hadn’t linked me to it at launch.

Basically, Google seems to have promoted it once, at launch, after which it got some buzz from the tech-savvy early adopter Google aficionados, and then disappeared for everyone except those early adopters. No-one thinks to themselves, “I wish there were a better way of using my Gmail inbox” – they have to be shown. And even then, not everyone’s going to be gung-ho about radical change in an area as crusty and old-school as email. If Google had just replaced Gmail with Inbox, the outcry would have been bigger than every anger campaign about the latest Twitter/Facebook redesign combined. So Inbox was always doomed to be an alternative client for a niche audience, and as a Google service not named Gmail, Search or Adsense, it was thus always in danger of being axed.

But there is a market for niche products. If anyone would like to make an Inbox-equivalent of The Old Reader, I’m willing to pay my way back to the future.

When all your emails were archived, Inbox would show a picture of a sun.

When all your emails are archived, Gmail shows this.