Google's Plan to Fix Email

At this week's Google I/O conference in San Francisco, Google announced that it's taking a novel approach to improving email.

We hold the truth that email sucks to be self-evident, but there's no agreement on how to fix it.

But at this week's Google I/O conference in San Francisco, Google announced that it's taking a novel approach to improving email: Opening its immensely popular Gmail up to developers by way of a new, proprietary API in beta. It seems to hope this API will eventually replace the current IMAP e-mail standard and turn the email service into a platform.

IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol), invented in 1986, has become far more popular in recent years as an alternative to POP -- the POP standard doesn't support flagging emails as read or unread across devices, which is pretty important now that you can check your email from your refrigerator just as easily as you can from your computer.

Just about every mail client ever invented, including Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird, supports IMAP as the accepted standard for reading and receiving emails. Gmail has supported IMAP basically for the duration of its existence, meaning that any of those mail clients could act as an interface for Gmail.

Now, Google has basically created its own protocol for email. If developers flock to this Gmail API -- by no means assured -- Google could decide to deprecate support for IMAP, which would limit the number of mail clients and inevitably devices that will be compatible with Gmail.

Even so, that wouldn't necessarily be all bad. Google is touting this step as a way to make Gmail a new platform for developers, opening the door to all kinds of handy-dandy new tools that take advantage of the ability to access email from within other, more specailized apps.

"While IMAP is great at what it was designed for (connecting email clients to email servers in a standard way), it wasnt really designed to do all of the cool things that you have been working on," writes Google's Eric DeFriez in a blog entry.

DeFriez goes on to write that Google's developers get Android-esque app-level permissions when accessing Gmail through the new API: If you only need your app to send e-mail and not read it, you can limit permission requests. He also says that it's much faster than current mail access protocols.

So yes, email has problems, and fixing them with current mail access protocols that date back to the eighties often seems like trying to ice-skate uphill. And Gmail is a robust, incredibly popular platform that offers a lot of leverage for trying to fix things. But giving Google even more control over tools and technologies that we use every day seems like it may be a hard sell.

Update: It's been pointed out that despite the language of the blog post, the official documentation for this Google API indicates that "the Gmail API should not be used to replace IMAP for full-fledged email client access." A Google spokesperson confirms that the company has no plans to discontinue IMAP support for Gmail.

That said, the API represents a better way of accessing email for developers than IMAP, so most apps built on top of Gmail will almost certainly end up going that route sooner rather than later -- but Google is pitching it more as an "alternative" than a "replacement."

Matt Weinberger
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