The End Of Email As We Know It

How your inbox is becoming an app. The final conversion of the old internet’s last holdout.

After over 10 years of using email through clients — from Outlook to Mail to Sparrow to Mailbox — I stopped. It was about two months ago. I switched, or began switching, from Sparrow to the Gmail site. On my phone, I deactivated iPhone Mail and switched to Gmail’s official app. Now Google doesn’t just host and operate my email service, it owns and controls my entire email experience.

I’m uneasy about this, but it was my choice. I made it, and I expect millions more will too. That’s because, starting with the introduction of a fast, app-like webmail service and followed by the release of native, Gmail-specific mobile apps, Google has been recreating — and taking control of — what had become the last piece of digital real estate users could legitimately feel like they controlled: their inboxes.

Gmail’s new tabbed inbox was what finally pulled me over: It accomplishes, using Gmail’s enormous data resources, what few, if any, personally designed email filter systems can. It organizes messages into categories — Primary, Promotions, Updates, etc. — with the same assertiveness and accuracy as it has categorized spam for years. “Our goal here was to give people context,” says Alex Gawley, the product manager for Gmail. “If you’re dealing with a whole bunch of messages within the context of other messages that have that same context, then you’re able to do that more efficiently. It’s a more useful experience, rather than having to continuously context-switch as you’re going through the messages in your inbox.”

The feature is still rolling out to users, but so far it seems to be a hit. A recent survey of BuzzFeed employees — a large portion of whom had been offered the new feature — returned positive results. “Use it. Love it. Not afraid to admit it,” wrote one editor. “I’m into it for sure. It was weird at first, but it made me realize that most of my inbox is garbage Twitter notifications and Livingsocial (lol) deals,” said another.

Gawley says that, from his end, early results are promising. He wouldn’t share usage rates, but said feedback has been good. “It’s a pretty big change to a product a lot of people use. It was really pleasing to see that people were visiting all of the tabs, still processing their mail, and doing it more efficiently than before.” A scenario in which the tabbed inbox is the default option for Gmail users is seeming increasingly likely. Tellingly, email marketers have been reduced to begging their subscribers to categorize their companies as real friends, to avoid demotion.

But inbox tabs have other, bigger consequences: They complete the transformation of email, started by webmail, into a centralized service. Asked if the tabbed inbox will ever be available in third-party email clients, Gawley suggests that it won’t. “It’s always a goal for us to provide the very best experience on a platform through our own apps,” he says. “Generally the way [third-party] apps interface with Gmail is through IMAP… It’s a great protocol, but it’s directed at a certain way of managing email. IMAP’s version of folders doesn’t really map to the way we’re thinking about categorization. To deliver the very best experience to people, we really needed to develop something new.”

The tabbed inbox will never work with Outlook, Mail, Sparrow, or Mailbox, which means Gmail’s users, if they want the best Gmail experience, will no longer want to use Outlook, Mail, Sparrow, or Mailbox. They’ll have to use Google’s site or one of its official apps. Asked about this change, a spokesperson for Gmail-centric app Mailbox replied: “Nothing specific to announce on this front at the moment, but we do believe various kinds of email content should be treated differently and we’re thinking about how to address this issue.”

In 2013, traditional email is a deeply unusual product. While many of today’s most popular social networks started as basic, email-like platforms, they’ve since moved to more tightly controlled designs. To use Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr on your iPhone, your best option is to use an official app. The data on those services lives primarily on company servers, from which it is accessed but not really downloaded. Consider the sense of ownership you feel over your email, and compare that to how you think about your Facebook account. Which one feels more like yours?

Many people access email the same way they access Facebook, though Gmail’s web interface, or similar sites from Microsoft or Yahoo. But the other option — the option to have your mail delivered to an inbox on your device — has always been present and attractive. You could check your Gmail in your iPhone’s Mail app, then check it again later on the site. The interfaces were different, but the experience was largely the same. This, according to researchers, is by far the most popular way people check email.

But soon it will also be the worst option. The tabbed inbox and traditional inbox experiences are vastly different, to the point that using both isn’t really an option (something which I suspect will become more obvious as email users allow more and more social notifications into their inboxes, know they won’t overwhelm personal mail). And with the tabbed inbox, my “Primary” unread count became the one I kept an eye on, the one I regard as real. That’s when I gave up on using email and finally switched fully to Gmail.

This, in a number of very real ways, will be a good thing for most people. Social networking notifications in particular have become extremely obnoxious, and moving those to a separate tab feels a lot like the first time I used a spam filter. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re losing something. My old inbox was mine; this one belongs a little more to Google. It will also play host to new ad products, which the company is already testing and which bear no small resemblance to the ones populating Twitter’s and Facebook’s homepages.

If Google sticks to its plans, and if, as usual, other webmail providers follow suit, the tabbed inbox signals the end of email as we know it. The new internet will finally consume the last holdout of the old internet, and email will finally assume its new form: an ad-supported social network with an official app.

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