As developers continue to give us smart new tools for managing our unruly inboxes, Google has turned its attention to the root of our email woes. The problem? We get way too much of it. Google’s solution, or at least the latest version of it? Tabs.
But the new system isn’t just about keeping your inbox organized. It’s a recognition of the simple fact that all emails aren’t created equal—and, more important, an admission that some might not be worthy of your inbox in the first place.
The new inbox, which will roll out to users in coming weeks on both the desktop and Gmail mobile apps, puts a row of big, chunky tabs atop the standard list of messages. There are five in all. First is the "primary" tab, which is essentially your main inbox. There’s "social," which includes all things related to services like Google+, Facebook, and Twitter; "promotions," where email blasts from daily deals sites get shuffled; "updates" for receipts, bills, and other unglamorous but important digital documents; and "forums" for groups, discussions, message board and the like.
Google touts that the new inbox "puts you back in control using simple, easy organization." But the tabs don’t really involve much organization on the user’s side at all. With tabs enabled, the corresponding emails are routed automatically. When you get a message from Groupon, say, it automatically gets deposited in your "deals" tab, never once passing through your inbox proper.
You can drag and drop messages between tabs, sure, and you can decide which ones you want to use. But by and large, the tabs are an automated, fixed affair. You can’t customize them with your own parameters, as you would with a label. Nor do they just serve as shortcuts to subsets of messages, like labels do. The tabs are wholly separate from your inbox—they’re specialized repositories that exist independent from the standard list of emails you revisit throughout the day.
In that way, the update is a fairly radical one, at least in terms of how we think about our inboxes. Until now, no matter what system you used for sorting emails, the inbox could be counted on as the one place where you could find them all. All emails were equal in that sense. The tabbed inbox does away with that. But it makes sense. All emails aren’t equal.
Back when Gmail first was introduced in 2004, spam was the scourge of the inbox. Thankfully it was a fairly binary problem—an email is either spam or it isn’t—and thus a straightforward one to solve. Over the years, with complex filters and sophisticated algorithms, Google has done a remarkably good job of getting it under control.
Today, though, our inboxes are choked with a different sort of spam. These aren’t scams and supplement ads but messages we might actually want to read at some point—things like newsletters, catalogs, daily offers, and social media status updates. They don’t require our immediate attention, but they may be of value to us. This isn’t spam, exactly. In many cases, we asked to receive it. And it’s not entirely useless stuff, either—among those dozen unread Living Social emails, there’s a chance that there might be a really good one. Which is precisely why we leave the things sitting there, unread, to be processed later.
Still, these messages aren’t as important as emails from friends, family, coworkers, and other actual people. Worse yet, they make a mess of our inboxes, crowding out more time-sensitive messages that might require action on our parts. What this subclass of messages is, really, is clutter. It’s the stuff sitting on your desk taking up space—the stuff you don’t really have a place to store but doesn’t yet belong in the trashcan either. With tabs, Gmail automatically grabs all that stuff before it has the chance to clutter up your real inbox and neatly tucks it away in so many digital drawers.
The main, crucial consequence of this is a more relevant inbox, in addition to a far more accurate count of how many unread messages you have at a given moment. When you’re thinking about getting your inbox under control, seeing that you have 782 unread messages to sort through can be a huge psychological hurdle. But when 500 of those have been automatically distributed to their respective tabs—turns out 300 of them were daily new Twitter follower alerts!—you’re left with a much more manageable situation.
To savvy users of existing Gmail features—things like filters, labels, and stars, as well as the priority inbox—the new tabs system might seem redundant, if not actively disruptive to whatever system you’ve already got going. But the tabs mark a fairly significant shift in Gmail’s approach to inbox management. Namely, that it’s easier to figure out what’s not important to an email user than to pinpoint what is.
The idea behind the "starred" message was to let Gmail users manually flag the messages that required their attention. The "important" message filter automated the process. With tabs, Google’s tackling the problem from the opposite end. It’s not looking for what’s important and setting it aside; it’s looking for what it knows isn’t important—all the junky inbox jetsam we leave unread for later, but never return to—and setting it aside for us.
The way tabs are deployed, though—as separate inboxes instead of subcategories of the same big one—has some powerful implications. Stars let us mark important emails amidst a sea of unimportant ones. Tabs comes with the implicit suggestion that maybe we shouldn’t be thinking of those unimportant emails as emails at all. As John Herrman points out over at BuzzFeed, in reality, these types of updates are more akin to a feed than anything resembling two-way correspondence.
Taking a step back, though, you can also see the new inbox simply as a reflection of how Google’s changing more broadly as a company. When Gmail first came out, it gave users unlimited storage space and an all-powerful search bar for sifting through it all. The promise was that you never had to delete an email again. Gmail was like your own personal Google. Total knowledge, total recall.
These days, Google is much less focused on the scope, breadth, and size of search. It’s more concerned with making search relevant, automatic, and predictive. The tab model is, in a sense, just a shrewder attempt at bringing that type of automated relevance to the inbox. Figuring out what emails a given user wants to see can be tricky. Figuring out what ones we don’t need to be looking at all the time is considerably easier.