Gmail: The Evolution of Mobile Email

Google may well be best known for its search engine, but the company has plenty of strings to its bow including Gmail – the free email service that has exploded in popularity over the past few years. As with many other online services, there is a mobile version of the Gmail website that you can use to access your inbox from your phone or tablet, so why would you want to use an app?

The recent update to Gmail — both its Android app and the website  — means that this seems like a good time to take a closer look at Google’s email service. This is something I use daily, and have done for years. There are aspects I love, aspects I hate, but I think it’s continuing to make moves in the right direction.


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A Confession

We may as well cut to the chase straight away; I love Google — and I’ve waxed lyrical about it over on Web.AppStorm — but I’m not devoted enough to welcome every change with open arms.

I make no secret of my love for Google - but I accept that not everything is perfect.

I make no secret of my love for Google – but I accept that not everything is perfect.

However, the recent introduction of tabs to the web version of Gmail knocked me off balance somewhat. The Gmail I had come to know and love looked like a mess. Rather than having all of my emails arriving in my inbox, Google was now deciding how certain emails should be categorized and automatically moving them to tabs where it felt appropriate.

Gmail's new tabbed inbox has been met with a mixture of hatred and agreement from users.

Gmail’s new tabbed inbox has been met with a mixture of hatred and agreement from users.

Losing Control

I am vehemently opposed to anything automatic happening to my emails that I have not personally set up. I make extensive use of filters, but these are automated steps that I have created. So it was good to find that tabs at the main Gmail website could be easily disabled and this was something I did very quickly.

Why did this new feature get banished so quickly from my inbox? For a number of reasons. I want to be in control of my email. I don’t want Google to decide that a particular message should appear in my Primary, Social, Promotions, Updates or Forums tab. I’m quite capable of making these decisions myself.

Not a fan of tabs? You'll be happy to learn that they are not compulsary.

Not a fan of tabs? You’ll be happy to learn that they are not compulsary.

The introduction of tabs also brought a new batch of inter inbox advertisements – another thing I’m not happy with. Add to this the fact that the number of unread messages in the inbox is now split across five tabs rather than being totalled up, and it did not take me long to decide that tabs were not for me.

Gmail App Update

Perhaps unsurprising, any settings that are put in place in your Gmail account are rolled over to the Gmail app. I have disabled tabs on the website, so these labels do not appear in the app either. Great! Now I can get on and enjoy the other changes Google has introduced. But of course, if you find that you are a fan of the new tabs, you can make use of these categories in the app.

The Gmail app sidebar makes it easier than ever to move between accounts and labels.

The Gmail app sidebar makes it easier than ever to move between accounts and labels.

And there’s quite a lot to look at. A side navigation bar can be used to not only move between labels and folders, but also to switch inboxes if you have multiple accounts set up. It might seem like a minor change, but it’s a massive improvement over the way things used to work. Gone is the button to refresh the inbox, replaced with a gesture. Like many other apps, including Twitter, it’s now possible to refresh with a quick downward swipe.

Swiping to update your inbox soon becomes second nature, but the lettered icons are weird to start with.

Swiping to update your inbox soon becomes second nature, but the lettered icons are weird to start with.

Perhaps the most obvious change to the app is visible to the left hand side of the screen. Contacts for whom you have an avatar will have their image next to any of their email, while for everyone else the first letter of their name appears as a large icon. It’s a bold look. It’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, but at the very least it makes the inbox a more colourful place to be!

And the Bad News

The most recent update is quite a big change; it is not for the weak hearted. For anyone who has become used to doing things in a certain way, there is a learning curve to endure. So as much as I am a Google fan, I’ll admit to instantly hating the app update. The slide-out navigation bar seemed unresponsive to start with, and there is a key interface tweak that takes a little getting used to.

Buttons that were previously at the bottom of the screen have been moved to the top. This is not a serious problem by any means, but memory muscle means that even after several days working with the app, my thumb still wanders to the wrong portion of the screen to delete unwanted messages.

Argh! My buttons have gone! Ah no… they’ve just moved!

Argh! My buttons have gone! Ah no… they’ve just moved!

It is also not immediately obvious how to select multiple messages. While individual emails can be swiped to delete, if you want to delete several at once, what should you do now that there are no check boxes? It turns out that a quick tap of an avatar or icon is all it takes to select a message — but make sure you tap in the right place or you’ll open emails by accident.

There is also a rather strange change: the delete button is not enabled by default. Just as with the Gmail website, you’re encouraged to archive everything rather than remove it. Thankfully, a quick trip to the app’s settings reveals that archiving has not replaced deleting and that the two buttons can live happily side by side — or you can choose whichever you would rather use full-time.

For some reason Google continues to push archiving over deleting, but you can still enable the delete button.

For some reason Google continues to push archiving over deleting, but you can still enable the delete button.

Apps vs Mobile Websites

So, with this powerful dedicated app, why does Google bother to maintain a mobile website for Gmail?

To start with, it is significantly easier to create a website that can be used on older Android devices than it is to have an app that’s guaranteed to work with all versions of the OS, different screen sizes and various hardware configurations.

Android apps are great, but they require more development work to ensure device compatibility.

Android apps are great, but they require more development work to ensure device compatibility.

But this is not the only thing that Google has to consider. When new features are added to any app, developers are reliant on users updating to the latest version of the app. With a dedicated mobile website, it is possible to ensure that all visitors have the same experience and are provided with all of the latest features.

From a user’s point of view this may be less desirable. If the mobile version of Gmail introduces a feature I don’t like, and I decide to use the website, there’s nothing I can do to avoid it. If the same feature is added to the Android app, I can simply delay upgrading until I want to.

It looks a little on the simple side, but the mobile Gmail website is amazingly well-featured.

It looks a little on the simple side, but the mobile Gmail website is amazingly well-featured.

I switched back to the mobile site after trying out the new app for a while, and although it is great to have access to familiar features such as check boxes to select multiple messages, it feels positively antiquated already! The current Gmail app for Android may not be perfect — and there are few apps that could not be improved in some way — but it’s getting there.

I’d be interested to hear how you access your Gmail inbox. Do you do it through the Gmail app, or through the mobile website? Perhaps you have an alternative email app that you use. Share your experiences below, and let us know what you think of the latest changes to Google’s email app.