Gmail reinvents the inbox (again) at nine

Gmail's New inbox sorts emails into tabbed categories. A look back at the nine-year-old service.

You've come a long way Gmail. Nine years ago Google Labs introduced Gmail Beta to a world dependent on their Outlook inbox for important email and maybe a web-based Hotmail or Yahoo Mail account for everything else. Today that Outlook inbox, tethered to a desktop, feels like a ball and chain. In 2012 Google said there are 425 million people actively using Gmail on their desktop, tablet, or phone.

New Sort Feature in Gmail

Email has evolved. In 2004 people and companies didn't want to risk critical communications to a Web service. Now companies and their mobile-centric workforce can't afford not to. Times have changed and so have our evolving digital messaging needs.

The Evolution of Gmail
(Click on The Evolution of Gmail image on the right to get a closer look.)

That's why Google introduced this week a new inbox that aims to reinvent email for our digital lives jam packed with social networks, promotions, and important updates like when a package shows up at our door. The new Gmail inbox (rolling out to Gmail users over the next few weeks) automatically identifies important messages and sorts them into tabs located at the top of our inbox so we can easily separate the wheat from the messaging chaff.

Google says it's responding to changing communication needs. People are becoming less reliant on email and are more likely to keep up with friends via Facebook, Twitter, SMS, or a video chat. Google's new inbox (which you'll be able to "turn off" if you don't like it) attempts reflect that change and solve the growing problem of messaging overload.

Gmail Tweaks Never Stop

It's an attempt to change email again with a feature that we didn't know we needed, but someday might come to rely on. That's been the hallmark of Google, be it email or search.

Back in 2004 Google made a splash with Gmail offering a stripped-down interface, 1GB of storage, and an ambitious goal to be your primary inbox. At the time its competitors offered a tiny fraction of the storage space and had a dense interface filled with banner and pop-up ads. Couple Gmail's great features with being lighting fast and Gmail was soon a smash hit for the company.

Gmail landing page 2004

There have been some bumps in the road such as an outcry about user privacy when it was discovered that Google scanned your email for keywords to better target ads at you. Then there are the Gmail outages and brown outs that can be small and brief, but feel intolerable to the millions impacted by them at the time. But unlike Facebook, Google has done a good job of avoiding new feature backlashes when introducing new "improvements." That's thanks to Google's habit of letting you "turn off" features you don't like.

Over the years Google has morphed to accommodate our devices and changing lifestyle and has done a good job staying ahead of the curve. In 2005, two years before the iPhone debuted, Gmail was available for feature phone browsers. In 2008 Gmail premiered an Android app (it would take three years more for it to show up as an app on iOS).

But much of Gmail's success can be attributed to introducing useful features. In 2007 Gmail was the first email provider to offer free IMAP getting your email on a multitude of devices. In 2008 it added a feature that reminded you if you forgot to attach an attachment to an email. In 2009 it allowed you to access Gmail offline for when you were away from a Internet connection. And in 2012 it integrated Google Drive into Gmail allowing you to easily swap files up to 10GB in size without having to attach a file.

Researchers at Radicati Group report consumer e-mail traffic fell 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012. That trend is likely to continue, the company says. Perhaps that's why some of the largest email players have turned the inbox into a digital battlefield in hopes of giving us a reason to check our email more frequently.

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