UPDATE: Google killed Inbox in September 2019. This article was originally posted October 2014.
It’s no secret that I am what’s called a Google Fanboy. I really do like the way Google runs the ship. And I enjoy trying each of their new products / services as soon as I can get my hands on them.
My most recent experience is with the highly-anticipated-by-other-fanboys “Inbox” by Gmail. It’s essentially a new take on email software / apps.
Inbox is another way of looking at and sorting through the messages in your Gmail account. The big sales pitch is that Inbox will “bundle” similar messages. So for example, all of your social media notifications are bundled into one line item that you can easily swipe away or be done with. That’s certainly easier than having to completely ignore them all, or having to search and delete.
Also, when looking at a message, I can “pin” it to save it for later, I can make it go away completely, I can make it go away and come back later, and I can set a reminder. So you get options with each message. Yes, this is much like marking unread or deleting, plus the benefit of reminders.
Inbox also works to provide you with relevant info that you might need, without making you open a message. So an email about a recent purchase from Amazon will have a link that goes right to that product. You can click the link having never actually opened that email. Or the email about that flight you are taking, you’ll have a link to check in, and you never opened the email. Etc. So theres’s clearly some Google Now stuff going on there.
[OBSOLETE: The above-mentioned benefits had me anxious. I wanted in so badly. I read article after article in anticipation. To start using it, you have to be invited in. Sounds pretty high society, I know. I waited and waited for my invitation to come from Google. Days passed. And I finally received an invite from a friend who happens to work at the big G.]
My initial reactions were extremely anti-climactic. After just 5 minutes using it, I found comforting shelter back in the arms of “normal gmail.” I was just more used to regular gmail. And maybe it didn’t mean that much to me that I could easily click to see my recent order of a Toyota Air Filter.
But like a good fanboy, I opened Inbox again.
And just that fast I found myself quite frustrated to not be able to mark a message as UNREAD. This is something I do at least 25 times a day: open a message, not want to deal with it right now, and mark it as unread. Done. It’ll be there for me later. But in Inbox, you can’t mark as unread. You have to “pin” the message which essentially keeps it in the recent pile. And that seems fine. BUT and this is a huge BUTT… even if you pin a message, that same message has been marked as READ in regular gmail. So back at home base, that message is no longer bold. Out of sight, out of mind. Maybe it was important. And I don’t see it all. [UPDATE 3/19/16: I have to go into gmail and search for “is:pinned” and then mark those messages as unread, then go into Inbox and un-pin them.]
So my number one gripe is Inbox’s inability to mark a message as unread and keep it new / bold everywhere.
Number two on my list of problems with Inbox is No Signature. [As of early 2016, signature options have been added. Yay!]
There are definitely more than two camps for the signature issue. Some people have email signatures that include everything and the kitchen sink. While others go commando… no signature at all. Others include the basics and leave it at that. But Inbox gives you a grand total of zero options for your signature desires. As a business owner, I need to include basic contact info in my signature. Inbox forces me to leave it blank or type it out each time. Not cool.
The Compose Window! Issue #3 comes up when you use Inbox on the desktop. When creating a new message, you are forced into using the default-size small compose box on the bottom-right of the screen. Gmail let’s you go big and gives you some space to spread out, relaxed. But inbox keeps you locked in. It’s hard to breathe in that little box. [Update: Desktop inbox now has a much larger compose screen! Yay again!]
My picky complaint #4 is NO CONTACTS access. I’m used to choosing the Contacts window within Gmail. I frequently look up a person’s phone number, address, etc. And with Hangouts, I can easily initiate a call from that Contacts window. But Inbox gives me no options to reach my peeps. Well, that’s not true entirely. Technically, you can use a Chrome browser extension to modify the App Launcher, and you could add a custom link to google.com/contacts but that’s asking a lot of the average person. Perhaps Inbox is weening us toward using that App Launcher more than we have before. [Update: Contacts has been added to Desktop Inbox.]
Going down the list, a nearly tie for #4 is my beef about inserting images in the compose window. It wasn’t until my third day of using Inbox that I realized I could insert an image INLINE in my email body. To do so, you click your cursor where you want the image, then click the paperclip icon and choose your image. Yes, you’re just like me. You thought that paperclip was for attachments. And you’re right. But today I attached an image and it was inserted inline with the body. On the image itself were three dots. Click that and you get an option to insert the image as an attachment rather than an inline image. Again, are the engineers too smart for me? I don’t think so. I think they are hiding too much of the common stuff. [Update: You can now insert images!]
Storage! My friend Jim reminded me of something really big that was on my mind, too. Inbox puts quite a bit of emphasis on the user being “done” with an email rather than deleting it. Well, that’s the same as being done with toilet paper and putting it in a storage box in the garage. You’ve only got so much space, and well, it stinks. I am a paid user with some 36G of combined Google space. But I am nearly 2/3 through it, and my next step up will cost a decent monthly penny. [Update: You can delete a message on both Desktop and Mobile with Inbox.]
Saving your emails for later is quite valuable when those messages are from important people and / or they have to do with important things. Gmail has saved my butt many, many times by letting me find a message that had to do with a business contract. So archiving is amazing. But I don’t need to store the newsletter from the Zoo. Done.
Now that I have sounded so pissy for a good 30 minutes, I must point out that I appreciate and admire the fact that Google / Gmail is in fact attempting to improve the world of email, which hasn’t changed much since Gmail launched a decade ago. At the same time it is really beyond me that some of these very basic items were not included with the initial release of Inbox. Sort of like having Thanksgiving Dinner and there’s no mashed potatoes or cranberries on the table. These are basics that are understood. Defaults that we expect. Let the innovations come in other areas that are innovative.
As a somewhat humorous side note, my friend who works at Google and invited me to try Inbox in the first place, does not like to use Inbox! He said so himself. Google employees are well known to try products at length before they are released to the public for further testing. Well, after a very short time using Inbox myself, I asked him, “Do you prefer it over Gmail?” His very quick reply during a text-based Hangout was, “I don’t prefer it.” And later in our conversation he added “I am not a fan, but I still have to explore it more.” That’s fair. We all do. But as explorers, I think it should feel just a little more like home.
UPDATE 3/19/16: Inbox has added some really great features since the original post of this article (October 2014). Signature, Contacts Access, Large Compose Window, Delete, etc have all been added. My only remaining complaint is the lack of “Mark as Unread.”
NEW: Smart Reply
One incredibly awesome feature that makes me PREFER Inbox over Gmail is called “Smart Reply.” Long story short is that Google’s computer scans your incoming message and often suggests three really good replies. They are very, very accurate. For example, a coworker might write to you, “Hey, can you send that file to me? I really need it before 5 p.m.” And Inbox might suggest replies like, “Sure, here it is.” Or “I will look for it.” Or “Sorry, don’t have it.”
All I have to do is click one reply, and then the send button. Google says that 10% of all messages sent through Inbox are actually Smart Replies! Clearly, users really dig it. Don’t tell my mother, but once I had a 30-minute back and forth email conversation with her and every one of my messages was a Smart Reply. It was just an Inbox test. I wouldn’t do that to her all the time. Yet.