What happened to Google Inbox? Here's how Google cancelled its best product

Bernardo Montes de Oca
November 2, 2021

This one kind of hurts. I liked Google Inbox. Many people did, and most reviews were positive to prove it. There was also a general outcry when it shut down.

It almost got me to enjoy email altogether. And then, of course, Google turned it off. Back to square one, to traditional and burdensome email. If you think the Gmail app is friendly enough these days, know that it is primarily thanks to Inbox.

Features like snoozing messages, auto-generated bundles, or the somewhat creepy but helpful suggestions of smart replies; were first implemented on the Inbox app. And, somehow, they felt more organic and fresher than now on Gmail.

So, let's remember yet another addition to Google's prolific list of deceased projects and companies. One that was good and ultimately got sacrificed to make Gmail what it is today.

How Google Inbox was born

I guess there can only be so much innovation when it comes to email. It is what it is. Still, simple as it is, receiving and sending emails can become an actual burden amid our frantic, digital lives. Achieving the so-called "Inbox Zero" sounds like reaching Nirvana or being enlightened.

Some deal better with email than others, and that's alright. But, please don't have hundreds or thousands of emails sitting there, unread, untouched. That red badge on Gmail's icon with a four-digit number of unseen emails is likely an anxiety trigger.

But you do you. Honestly, the process of customizing and fine-tuning Gmail to work for you and not against you is more cumbersome than it should. It's a tricky mix of filters, labels, categories, stars, and rules that only the true warriors of productivity manage to tame.

At this point, we've succumbed to it. Of course, none of us expect to reinvent the wheel. But back in 2014, Google still found room for innovation and came up with Inbox. Then, in 2004, they created Gmail. The email client that just swallowed all competitors and became the norm, maybe along with Outlook.

Gmail standardized the email experience for a decade, to the point where it started to feel stale and lifeless. So, ten years later, they set out to rethink it and came up with Inbox. And it was good.

Google inbox article: the image shows two screenshots, one depicting Google Inbox and the other one Gmail, with Inbox in front. The background is blue

Google Inbox: A breath of fresh email

Inbox was its own stand-alone email service, independent from Gmail. It had its mobile app and worked on desktop too. At first sight, it was colorful but not annoying. The view of messages grouped in Bundles was way more inviting than the overwhelmingly plain list of messages on Gmail's default view.

Bundles were those categories that Gmail now gives by default, such as Promotions, Social, Updates, and so on. Inbox innovated with this intelligent grouping of emails, and it felt valuable and intuitive back then. Maybe it was the charm of the first time seeing how machine learning organized our emails.

But Inbox also had a series of integrations with other Google tools, like Reminders and the ever-intrusive, ever-helpful Google Now. Those two Google projects morphed into Tasks and Google Assistant, respectively. With these integrations, Google aimed to be the go-to productivity app for many, as it seamlessly integrated email with reminders, billing, social, and more.

The Material Design line of thought that Google also came up with that year dominated Google Inbox. They created this design system to help developers and designers build more streamlined experiences within Google's Android, iOS, and the web ecosystem.

Among other things, it made index cards pretty relevant and interactive in the user interface. So, on top of categorizing your emails, Inbox would let you interact with them through a series of cards with relevant actions, accessible at a glance.

For example, if you were a traveler, Inbox automatically compiled all travel-related confirmations and created interactive trip bundles. These bundles presented an overview of your plans for upcoming and past trips through these cards. It would also organize invoices, and so on.

What were some of the key features of Google Inbox?

Besides the colorful and interactive design, Inbox was the first to bring the magic of snooze to emails. Well, maybe not the very first one.

Interestingly enough, before Inbox came out, another email app picked up steam and launched in 2013. It was Mailbox, and it seems to have been the first one to implement snooze for emails. A teaser video generated much interest and hundreds of thousands of pre-registration requests from people interested in trying it out.

It's similar to how Superhuman has reimagined the email experience and created much hype with its invite-only access. But not everyone is willing to pay $30/mo for an email app.

The release of Mailbox was a success back then. Shortly, Dropbox acquired it for around $100 million, only to discontinue it a couple of years later.

Some of the key feature to Google Inbox

But besides snoozing, Mailbox had other distinctive features that Google's Inbox, suspiciously enough, also had. Like the swipe gestures used to deal with emails on the app.

A simple left swipe over an email would let you snooze it for later. And you could choose from preset snooze times or customize when you want to deal with that specific email. You know, maybe you didn't intend to archive it or mark it as read (or as unread, for that matter), but you couldn't get to it at the moment.

This simple action and the bundling of messages made all the difference in alleviating the email experience. An Inbox reviewer for Fast Company said it perfectly, back in 2017:

"Once you adapt to this snooze-centric mentality, your Inbox stops being so overwhelming. You never have a huge buildup of tasks to master; instead, items appear little by little at appropriate times. And if you're ever too busy to process them, all you've gotta do is hit snooze again."

And then, swiping an email to the right would let you archive it. These swipes are also present in today's G  mail, although not the snooze one. To snooze an email, now you have to go through a couple of taps or clicks, and it's not as natural as the swipe and not so exciting.

It no longer feels like a new approach to dealing with emails but just another Gmail setting to tweak.

Google says goodbye to Inbox.

So, after four years of experimentation and delighting users, in late 2018, Google announced that it was shutting down Inbox.

They didn't give many explanations and just said they would focus more on improving Gmail for everyone, applying some of the lessons learned from Inbox.

The notification that started showing up on the app was a slap in the face for users. "This app will be going away in 15 days... You can find your favorite inbox features in the Gmail app".

And that was it. In April 2019, Google turned off Inbox. So its army of devoted users had to go back to Gmail and learn how to hate email again. Alright, maybe not hate it, but go back to a more conventional and unexciting way of going about their email.

And yes, Gmail has many of Inbox's features, but it's not the same. I won't get into the details of why, but if you had Inbox, you'd probably agree. And if you didn't, well, I'm glad Gmail has become better for you. Probably.

Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable. From start-ups to nature, from literature to aviation. Hearing impaired, so let’s talk loud and clear.
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