5 Oct 2014

Improving the iOS Mail App

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but not on anything Gmail-related.)


I’m a heavy Gmail user. I use stars, multiple labels, sometimes overlapping, filters that perform multiple actions, and so on. As a dedicated Gmail user, I found Apple’s Mail app on iOS to be a second-rate Gmail client — mails would get grouped into threads differently from how they would on the Gmail UI. Mail would let me archive only some mails in a thread, but Gmail wouldn’t respect that, since the idea of archiving only some mails in a thread doesn’t even make sense in the Gmail world. Mail wouldn’t let me star mails. Or change labels for a thread. Or offer search that worked. The trash icon would actually archive mail. And it offered its own terminology and actions like Flagging mail, which I couldn’t care less about. And so on.


So, I always thought of Mail as a second rate Gmail client, as one of the drawbacks of using an iDevice. But, recently, Apple has been adding useful features to Mail that take it beyond Gmail:


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Notice that you can decide what folders to show: your traditional inbox, unread mail, mail that arrived today, flagged mail, and mails with attachments. These are different ways of triaging your inbox.


You can see mails you’re on the To or CC list of. This is a simpler version of Gmail’s priority inbox, but one that always behaves in a predictable manner, never makes mistakes, and doesn’t require training to understand what’s important to you and what’s not. Neither Apple’s nor Google’s approach is absolutely better or worse, and both are valid approaches to take while building a product.


You can also choose to mark some people as important (VIPs), and choose to see mails from them. Which is again a different way of slicing and dicing your mail.


Finally, you can also ask for notifications for an important thread. We all sometimes have an important thread that we keep checking often to see if there’s an update. Thread notifications automate this, while still saving you from a constant barrage of notifications about every trivial mail that comes your way.


Put all these features together, and Mail.app offers several unique features of its own that go beyond Gmail. It’s good to see Apple make progress and deliver unique features to their users rather than just building a second-rate Gmail client. Kudos.

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