Google weighs in on the future of Inbox

With Gmail on the brink of a splashy relaunch, is Google's Inbox app as good as dead? Some fresh info and perspective.

Google, modified by IDG Comm

To appreciate the way so many of us feel about Google today, we need only remember the words of perfectly adequate 80s rock band Great White: Once bitten, twice shy. (Go ahead, watch the music video. It's hilarious.)

Those bleach-haired biker boys may have been writing about groupies and rock 'n' roll clichés, but they also tapped into a feeling all too common in our current mobile tech landscape: You never know when a service you love is going to go away. And so after a while, it gets tough to feel comfortable enough to commit.

You know what I'm getting at here, right? Google makes some really great apps and services. It also isn't afraid to kill off said apps and services when it sees fit, regardless of how users may react. The inevitable question, then, is always: What's next? Which Google app or service will be given a death sentence that'll send its dedicated users into a tizzy?

Right now, a lot of folks seem to be placing their bets on Inbox — the alternative Gmail interface that made its official public debut nearly three years ago. It's easy to see why Inbox could look like a target: First, a major Gmail redesign is essentially now confirmed to be looming — and leaked screenshots show the app adopting one of Inbox's key distinguishing features: native email snoozing. Gmail also got the Inbox-initiated Smart Reply feature a year ago.

Then there's the fact that progress on Inbox seems to have slowed down somewhat as of late. Google hasn't made any splashy Inbox-specific update announcements in some time, and — as my Twitter stream reminds me 17,000 times a day — the Inbox iOS app has yet to be updated to support the iPhone X's magical and revolutionary notch, despite numerous other Google apps receiving such support.

All combined, it's enough to make you think about Inbox's future — especially after last week's word that Allo was basically being moved to "life support" status just a year and a half after its debut (one of the more ironic Google product pivots of recent memory).

According to Google, though, all the fretting over Inbox's future is much ado about nothing.

"With respect to the upcoming Gmail announcement, there are no changes to Inbox by Gmail," a Google spokesperson tells me. "It remains a great product for users with specific workflows and one in which we test innovative features for email."

Now, all of this isn't to say Inbox is eternally safe from the graveyard. (Is anything, ever, in life?) But it does give us some important perspective on where things actually stand with the service as of right now. And that perspective lets us know we can all stand down and breathe easy, at least for the moment.

A bit of Inbox balance

Beyond that official assurance, there's something to be said for balance. And I can't help but notice that for every point in the column of the "Inbox must be doomed" argument we've been hearing for the past several weeks, there's a point in an opposing column that overtly suggests otherwise.

Just last week, for instance, I started seeing a new A.I.-powered Highlights section in Inbox on both mobile and web. (Some people started seeing signs of the feature last fall; it appears to have been rolling out slowly since then.)

A few months ago, Inbox started giving me suggestions for unsubscribing from recurring emails I hadn't opened in a long time. (The first signs of that new feature showed up in mid-December.)

Not long before that, another new Inbox feature appeared that uses artificial intelligence to find and suggest emails that might require a follow-up or reply.

Outside of showing up in the Inbox app and website, none of these features was shown off or announced — no tweets, no official Google blog posts, no broad promotions — so it's understandably easy to overlook them. But they illustrate that at least to some degree, development has been continuing on Inbox over these past several months. The service may not be getting the same level of attention it once enjoyed, particularly in terms of promotion, but saying it's all but dead seems a tad melodramatic.

Inbox and Gmail: Differences remain

Even more broadly, the notion that all of Inbox's distinguishing features are now moving into Gmail is fairly misguided. Inbox continues to have a meaningfully different interface and system for sorting and managing messages than Gmail, with an emphasis on automatically organized bundles that appear in your inbox only at certain times — thus streamlining when and how you deal with them.

That system is connected to numerous other still-Inbox-exclusive features — like the service's automatic organization and presentation of trip-related bundles for travel, for instance, and its ability to pull out and present key details from messages right within the main inbox view.

Inbox also integrates seamlessly with Google's cross-service reminders system in a way no other app does, by collecting all of your reminders (set via Inbox, Assistant, Keep, or even just the Google search box) in a single place and allowing you to manage them. And it lets you attach specific reminders to emails in a clever and incredibly helpful way — a feature I've come to appreciate and depend upon for my own inbox organization.

The bigger Google email picture

If we look back to the time of Inbox's launch, we can get a good reminder of Google's initial commitment to the product and its hope for how things would progress.

"We think this is the inbox designed for the problems we're going to see in the next 10 years, and that's how we're going to build on this," then-product-director Alex Gawley told Mashable in 2014.

"We also know there's a whole bunch of things that people are doing inside Gmail that we want them to be continuing to be able to do as well," he continued. "We hope, in the long run, that most of our users will be on Inbox."

Jason Cornwell, Inbox's lead designer, expressed similar sentiments in an AMA ("Ask Me Anything") hosted by the Inbox team on Reddit that December. He also set some more specific parameters, in response to a question about whether Inbox might replace Gmail down the road:

In the short term, no. In the very long term, we hope so. Inbox is something new — that’s why we’re launching it as a separate product. We care deeply about Gmail and Gmail users, but in the long run, as we add more features to Inbox and respond to user feedback, we hope that everyone will want to use Inbox instead of Gmail. Ultimately, our users will decide.

It's hard to say for sure if that goal has evolved over time — or even how many users are actually using Inbox at this point. That sort of data isn't something a company is likely to divulge. I think we'd all agree it seems pretty unlikely that the majority of Gmail users are now using Inbox, but that doesn't necessarily mean the number of Inbox users is completely insignificant. The most recent clue I found dates back to October of 2016, when former Inbox product manager Vijay Umapathy responded to a question on Quora about Inbox's usage and whether an organization would be wise to focus its efforts on Inbox or on Gmail:

Let's just say Inbox has a non-trivial number of users and is growing, so you would be wise to support both.

The Inbox Android app, meanwhile, currently shows as having 10 million installs on Google Play, for whatever that's worth. It was last updated on April 5.

So, yes: Google may be giving Gmail some long overdue attention right now — but all considered, it sure doesn't look like Inbox is unused, abandoned, or set to be sunsetted anytime soon.

"But what company would be crazy enough to maintain overlapping products that compete for the same set of users?" one might ask.

At this point, I think you and I both know the answer.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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