Regarding that iOS Gmail app: Google, do better

At Google, the bungling of the iOS Gmail app launch goes deeper than the bugs that the first, short-lived version of the app threw off when it was fired up.


Google's iOS Gmail app provides access to almost everything that the web service can do. But the UI needs some refinement.
(Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET)

The app is, unfortunately, a typical product from Google's Mail group: it has most of the useful features you want, but it's missing the one or two you need. And it's designed for engineers. With fingers the size of pipettes.

Its competition is the email app built in to every iOS device. That app is, by necessity, general; it works on almost every email back-end there is. It lacks access to several Gmail features. But it's fun, fluid and pretty.

Google's Gmail app is a big step up from the Apple app in key areas: it's easier to label and star incoming messages, and to attach pictures to messages that you're composing. And it has the de facto "pull down to refresh" behaviour that pretty much every app except Apple's own email app now has (seriously, Apple).

But it's laggy, and occasionally choppy, which the Apple app rarely is. And it only supports one Google account, which makes it useless for anyone who's truly invested in the Google vision (if you are, you probably have more than one Google Mail account). Google's Android Gmail app is better. It has a more app-like feeling. It feels like Android, and not like the Gmail website with a browser extension slapped on it, as the iOS app does. On Android, the icons are in the right places, and you're not boxed in to a single account. It's better.

I can see using the iOS Gmail app from time to time, when I'm trying to handle a bunch of filing on a mobile device. It will be slow, but at least in the app you can actually do this stuff. But for just reading and replying to email in a hurry, the Apple app is still better. And if you want to see all your email (from Google as well as other accounts) in one inbox, Apple will give you that, as will the email clients from Microsoft, RIM and the dearly departed webOS. (Ugly Google workaround: set up one Gmail account to read in email from other accounts, and access that account only from your mobile. I leave, as an exercise for the reader, the downsides of this approach.)

Meanwhile, Google is also improving its web-based interface. The rumoured re-do of the site has launched. It is better, but the site still lacks basic productivity features, like wildcard search (oh, the irony) and the capability to create a filter to show just email you received today.

People who want a more app-like experience on their computer should look at clients like Sparrow (on the Mac), which is minimalist, pure and fast, so it's great for run-of-the-mill email handling. There's also the new version of Postbox (PC or Mac), which is based on the Thunderbird source code. It has tons of features to help you focus and sort emails when you're trying to get a grip on a big backlog of messages.

I've yet to see a truly good email client for iOS that offers Apple's fit, finish and speed, combined with the productivity features you get in a heavyweight client like Postbox. There is an opportunity here, as more people use tablets and smartphones to do the work they've traditionally done on laptops. But to win over Apple users, Google's got to get UI designers who think like iOS junkies.


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