We can now text, tweet, iMessage, Facebook message, Skype and even leave one another disappearing messages. But old-fashioned email isn’t going away. It’s still a vital part of how we communicate.
That’s not to say email is flawless — far from it.
We mark items as “unread” so we will remember to deal with them later, then forget. We receive too much meaningless email and don’t know how to sort it. We try different methods for organizing our email, then even those methods become work, so we give up on them.
For the past week, I relied on a new app from Google to handle nearly all of my personal email. It’s called Inbox, and it works on Android, iOS and in the Web browser on your desktop. It’s so new that you can only get access to it if you receive an invitation (write to firstname.lastname@example.org to get one), and it doesn’t yet work on business accounts.
Inbox solves a lot of common email issues. It also throws in some cool extra features that are so useful that you’ll wonder how you survived email without them.
Below, I’ve outlined the ways that Inbox cured my email ailments, or as I call them, emailments.
Emailment: I mark an email as “unread” with plans to reply to it later, then forget all about it.
Inbox Medicine: Swipe right to left on a message or click the clock icon to snooze emails until you can respond. These messages will reappear in your inbox whenever you tell them to — like later that same day, the next day or another week.
You can even set emails to show up again when you’re in another place. Inbox can know, for example, that you don’t want to see an email again until you’re at home, where you can actually measure the size of the coffee table that you want to replace, or talk to the spouse who has to okay a suggested dinner party. When you get to your house, Inbox will automatically display that email in your notifications, which show up on the phone’s lock screen. These geolocation smarts also work with more vague locations, like grocery stores. If you got an email with recipe ingredients, you could snooze it to appear again when you arrive at the grocery store. Google Maps ties in with Inbox to know more about your location and what’s nearby.
Emailment: Email is too slow — especially on smartphones. I often need to manually refresh my inbox, waiting too long to get messages.
Inbox Medicine: I was seriously impressed by the speed of Inbox. I received messages using Inbox much faster than email messages I got in Apple Mail. It was even slightly faster than using the Gmail app. I only wished that Inbox could work for my work email, too.
Emailment: Too much of my email isn’t sorted in ways that make sense. I don’t have the time or inclination to work on it manually, so I keep wading through messages that don’t matter to get to the messages that do matter.
Inbox Medicine: Inbox automatically creates “Bundles” of emails for messages that are similar, like Finance, Purchases and Travel. This makes email feel more manageable and less cluttered. Bundles also give you a fast way of dealing with a bunch of email at once.
While I’m on the topic of going clutter-free, I should point out how Inbox uses images to represent various types of emails, like a cartoon of a dining table to represent a reservation, and photos of cities where you’ll arrive on flights, to represent plane tickets.
Emailment: I write reminders to myself, but these aren’t integrated with email. They’re in places like iOS Notes or even physical Post-its stuck to my phone. They often get lost in the shuffle.
Inbox Medicine: Write yourself Reminders in Inbox. These can be set to snooze until certain times or places, just like snoozing emails.
Emailment: I want to save an email in a spot where I don’t misplace it, but my system feels flawed.
Inbox Medicine: Tap the pin icon to pin certain emails to a clean screen where these select few emails can be more easily handled. When you’re done with them, swipe right or click the check mark (this works in the main section of Inbox, too).
Lest you think I’m drinking too much of the Inbox Kool-Aid, let me tick off some things that annoy me about it. For starters, Inbox buries the CC and BCC options in composed emails, forcing you to hunt around and find a tiny arrow that, when pressed, reveals these lines. Most people would never find this option. Since Inbox learns your email behavior as you use it, it should also learn that if someone uses CC often, the CC line should automatically appear when that person composes emails.
Second, Inbox on the desktop replaces Google Talk with Google+ Hangouts, which really bugs me. Instead of simply listing all of your friends who are online at any given time, Hangouts shows you a list starting with the people you’ve talked to most recently. This means that even if someone is offline, you see that person’s name. But these names are only visible when you click on an icon. And the large font and layout of Hangouts in Inbox forces you to scroll too much; it’s not as functional as good old Google Talk.
Finally, since Inbox doesn’t yet work with Gmail for business, you’ll probably have to switch back and forth between it and your other email apps. This gets annoying.
Google’s engineers have learned a lot about handling email in Gmail over the past decade, and they obviously put this to good use in Inbox. It’s an email cure for almost all that ails you.