Review: Google Inbox reinvents email, and that’s what’s wrong with it

Too many changes, too quickly

 
Screenshots of Google Inbox on a range of devices
It’s not clear that email needed reinventing, says Peter Nowak.

I’ve been using Google Inbox, the new email app for iOS, Android and the Chrome web browser, for the past few days… and that’s about as long as I think I’ll be using it.

That’s not for a lack of handy, time-saving features, but rather because it’s too different. And that difference gets in the way of it being truly useful.

Google is touting Inbox as the future of email, an app designed without several decades of baggage weighing it down. To that end, it introduces several useful innovations:

  • Bundles: Google Inbox messages are grouped into similar topics, such as promos, purchases and travel. It’s a feature that has existed for a while in Gmail on Android phones in a more limited form.
  • Highlights: messages show their most pertinent information, like dates and times or attachments, in the actual stream without having to open the email itself.
  • Reminders: rather than switching apps to create a reminder to do something, you can do so right at the top of Google Inbox. You can also “pin” important messages there for viewing later.
  • Snooze: if an email comes in and you don’t have time to read it right away, but you don’t want to lose it in the pile, you can basically have it resend itself at a later time.

The individual features are handy in their own circumstances and collectively they probably do represent the future of email. The problem is that all of them together, right now, is too much to handle.

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Compared to a regular email app, which generally consists of straight, horizontal lines of text, Google Inbox is a veritable dog’s breakfast. Circular icons, attachment images and lots of white space combine to create an overly busy layout. I initially thought it looked like Facebook – that busyness might work for a social network and its rich media, but not so much for email, where bare-bones information is more important than bells and whistles:

Screenshot of Google Inbox mobile app
(Peter Nowak)

 

Google Inbox’s features are also a lot to chew on. I might have been tempted to use them one at a time, and then slowly turn on additional features, but as it is they’re thrown at you all at once. It’s hard to know where to start.

It reminds me of an analogy for robots I once heard from an executive of Roomba maker iRobot. Cars or planes, he said, don’t become entirely autonomous overnight. They become robotic one step at a time, with users absorbing each new automation before another one is introduced. You’d think that Google, a pioneer in robot cars, would know that.

The other problem with Google Inbox is that it’s an all or nothing proposition. If you try it out on your phone, it’s going to affect your email wherever you use it.

One feature, for example, allows you to check an email as “done,” at which point it’s whisked away for safe-keeping and stored out of sight somewhere. But if you look at your old-fashioned Gmail inbox on a device where you don’t actually have the Inbox app running, that message is gone. You have to run a search to find it in your archives. In that way, Inbox nudges you to use it either everywhere or nowhere.

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It’s possible and maybe even likely that Google will indeed blend all these features into Gmail itself, and email as a whole will slowly but surely become easier to manage. But as it stands, I’m not convinced of the need to wholly redesign the concept.

Email works well as it is—the only real problem is there’s too much of it. Messing with a long-established system that many people are accustomed to, as Google Inbox does, isn’t the answer to that dilemma.

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