Gmail’s Organized Inbox is a life changer

Last month, Google’s Gmail team introduced a new auto-organized inbox feature to little fanfare among my friends. I saw a handful of tweets about it, didn’t get notified on my own account that it was available and promptly forgot about it. After a week or so I wanted to try it out and had to dig to find the feature (you have to enable it in your gmail settings). In the week or two that I’ve had it, it has completely changed my relationship with email, and it has been 100% for the better.

I probably get more email than most, but about average for someone running a sizable web site and company. I get lots of what I’d call “machine messages” where a server is telling me it is up or down, someone made a new post, or someone used paypal to sign up for the site. As much as I try to unsubscribe from everything I can, I still get numerous newsletters, offers, and coupons from businesses I like. In total, each day I probably get 4 to 5 really important emails out of 100-150 total.

Late last year I had some major life stresses that wreaked havoc on my life and my sanity. For the first time in my life, I started seeing a psychologist and we worked through some significant anxiety issues I was having. One source of stress (among many) was my bulging inbox and how every morning, I’d wake my phone and see a little red icon on the Gmail app that read something in the neighborhood of 37. Every single morning started with a combination of dread and stress over having to process a few dozen unread messages, any of which could be a bombshell (but most were innocuous, yet still take time and attention).

Working through my anxiety, I was taught a bunch of coping mechanisms that have worked wonders. When I was at my darkest early on in the process, I had to make a bunch of filters to automatically siphon off all the automated messages away from the inbox to bring my daily number down. This was a double-edged sword in that I got to wake to more sensible inbox messages like 8 or 9, but I’d know my labelled automated updates would be 20-30 more messages I couldn’t ignore and needed to look at for fears of missing something important.

Last year, Gmail tried a feature where they put everything in your inbox in two piles: Priority or normal, and it didn’t work that great for me. It didn’t properly guess which things were important with any accuracy, and if I only looked at Priority messages, I’d miss lots in my regular full email view.

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Gmail’s new feature tries to guess what kind of email has come in and now splits it into up to 5 piles: Primary (first priority), Social (automated messages from Twitter, LinkedIn, etc), Promotions (e-commerce store offers), Updates (machine messages, merchant updates, order receipts, etc), and Forums (mailing lists). The shocking part of this rough 5-bucket system of guessing on the part of Gmail is it works pretty damn well.

Seriously, it would seem on paper this is a recipe for disaster in trying to guess message priority for random users with the potential for hiding an urgent message but my inbox must mimic the average Google employee’s pretty well because it’s absolutely fantastic, probably running a greater than 90% accuracy on putting the unimportant things in the other inboxes. The result of this is that I’m only alerted on my desktop or iPhone Gmail clients with the numbers of messages in my Primary inbox and it hasn’t missed one of those 4-5 really important emails each day. I get to wake up to a sane number like 8 new things, and your inbox has a pointer on mobile to the counts for the other boxes. On the desktop, you see a brief flash of numbers in other boxes, but (and this is the absolutely genius part) those numbers fade away. This is brilliant because it de-emphasizes those other inboxes appropriately so you never feel like you are spinning 5 plates at once, trying to keep them all at zero. With a click or a swipe I can take a quick glance at the other boxes and ignore them if nothing urgent has fallen into them.

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The big bonus was an update to the Gmail phone clients as well, and they work just like the desktop, meshing the exact same experience into your mobile device. A simple swipe on the iPhone lets you jump from inbox to inbox in a flash and it’s not a drag on how I normally use the app. The screenshot at right shows my phone running Gmail, checking for new mail after being offline for a few hours and I only have one new important message (instead of 15), which is absolutely spot-on and totally gives me my sanity and life back.

This new feature is pretty simple but works amazingly well for my type of email and with this feature I’m basically wed to Gmail and the Gmail clients for life, as nothing else I’ve tried (Mailbox, Boxer, etc) does as good a job as this new Gmail feature. It quite literally lowers my anxiety, lowers my blood pressure, and lets me wake up each morning feeling less overwhelmed and I’ve noticed I’m just a bit happier all the time now that I’ve used this feature a bunch.

The most incredible part of it for me is that Google’s first crack at this is nearly perfect, as-is, out of the box. Few app features work that well on their initial release, but this one just plain works.

So thanks Google for releasing this and honestly making my life better. Everyone else with loads of stressful automated messages, give it a try, you’ll be glad you did.

Thoughts surrounding Google Reader’s demise

First off, I'm sad to see Google Reader is closing up soon (why so soon when other Google apps came with 12-18 months of notice?). I know some people that developed and worked on the product and to this day I use it several times a day to keep up on a few hundred blogs I follow (as well as weirder feed things like like recent comments in specific posts I'm interested in, obscure search results at ebay for items I'm tracking, and of course, mentions of my name or sites across blogs). I use the service almost as much as I use Twitter and it wasn't easy news to take, since I thought it'd always be around like water or electricity, run by the largest technology company on earth. Now I'm left second guessing using any Google product that doesn't clearly carry advertising on it, knowing the plug can be pulled at any time. I thought I'd write up some thoughts below and some quick reviews of alternates in the hopes others in the same boat can figure out what to do next.

Why is RSS interesting?

I admit the world of RSS is a pretty geeky circle to run in (if you know what RSS stands for, you're officially in the club). You've got a mix of web technologists, nerds, and news junkies that are all so busy that they no longer want to browse the web, they'd rather check a stream of updates that were fetched for them. RSS is basically TiVo for the web, and like TiVo in say, the year 1999, only the hardest core nerds are interested in it. Most web users love it and find it useful once you explain how it works (sites publish a file that gets periodically checked and fetched, to be reposted in your client of choice for reading updates) but like TiVo, it's a huge hurdle to get over, to explain to people why this technology is worth it and saves so much time.

Why should anyone care about Google Reader?

Google Reader was the best of breed. It started around 2005 and became one of the first few web-based services for reading RSS. Up until then most people used a desktop app to read RSS feeds from sites, but I personally liked the flexibility of using a web browser on any computer to stay up to date on what I'd read (it's a lot like the old days of POP email, if your unread counts get out of sync across devices, email was harder to use). Around 2007, Google Reader started adding more features and getting easier to use, by 2010 Google Reader was getting fairly amazing, notifying you of new posts within seconds of them going up (relying on the global network of Googlebots scouring the web) and being able to provide feeds for pages without RSS

My favorite time is around mid-2011, by then Google Reader was fast, easy to use, reliable, available on my mobile devices natively in a browser or also in a client like Reeder, and there was also a hidden social network of other news junkies and nerds. You could share items to the public or just your friends, you could comment on articles just among friends you'd connected with. I used to follow random people I didn't know in any other context but knew them through their amazing shared items. Most all the social stuff was stripped in late 2011 to make way for Google+ share buttons, but they didn't work the same and took your shared items away from Reader into an entirely other site so few people used them.

Google Reader announcing they are going away soon is a huge problem. It means the loss of a beloved app for a lot of nerds and news junkies, including a great number of journalists, not only those working in the technology field. It means a lot of tiny blogs won't get noticed as easily if we won't be able to easily monitor infrequently updated blogs written by experts. I'm convinced we'll see some effects of this closure on journalism, until writers scramble to find alternate ways to monitor thousands of contacts and researchers writing online.

While Google was innovating on Reader from 2005-2013, pretty much every competitor slipped away. Desktop clients were waning, web-based locally hosted readers gave up development as Google surpassed what a few small developers worth of resources could create and eventually many apps simply tied into a centralized Feed API Google launched so you could basically use Google Reader in different clients and interfaces, always keeping your sync/read numbers correct. Recently I noticed quite of lot of filtering has found its way into Google Reader, where I'm only presented with new posts from my most favorite sources at the top when my unread counts are high, which is a nice touch and points to some interesting AI happening in the background to figure those out for me.

The thorny problems of writing your own

Everyone I know is scrambling for alternative services and there are a handful around and many more being built. Seeing these new smaller outfits with their servers being slammed by a few thousand new users indicates just how big and reliable the Google infrastructure behind Reader is. There are a lot of thorny issues to solve for anyone planning to make a successor to Google Reader:

1. The update bot – Google had the advantage of having not only thousands of server farms across the world but many thousands of bots running constantly across millions of sites every day checking for updates. Building a bot isn't the hardest thing in the world, but building one that can quickly scan through hundreds of thousands of sites a day is non-trivial and is a major endeavor. Keeping one running is more than a full time job.

2. Feed APIs – The central brain of any RSS reading app is often available via programming interfaces so your UI can stay in sync with your website view and mobile apps. A lot of current RSS readers rely on the Google Feed API that is likely going away, so it'll be a fairly big project for anyone to rebuild this for their app. I have heard talk of people trying to share resources here, attempting to make a centralized service others can use, but I don't have high hopes of that coming together in the very short time frame we have.

3. Search – I recall someone formerly at Google once telling me that providing custom search across all your feeds was a huge undertaking that basically requires a service to keep a copy of every blog post in every blog ever tracked in the entire system, and provide that indefinitely. I don't use search much in Google Reader but I hear that's a killer feature for many others. The feature obviously ramps up your storage needs for any project.

4. Economics – The toughest problem to solve is in the end, how many people would pay for building and maintaining a service? How many users did Google Reader ever have, and what small number would pay someone else to try and make something as good? This is the tough part and beyond a few thousand nerds, I'm not sure if you can convince a larger casual web audience that your product is worth paying for. A lot of outfits are trying to create magazine-like applications that suggest interesting articles from their system and that may be the way to lure the "normals" to a news reading service, but it's tough to say even after building the immense hardware and software required to run a reader-type app, if it's possible to support more than a tiny team of 2-3 programmers on the revenue from users. That said, I'm actually wary of RSS reading apps that don't charge. I want anything replacing Google Reader to stick around.

Quick reviews of existing readers

Since the announcement, I've been playing with alternatives to Google Reader. I didn't try out any desktop or self-installed applications since I move from computer to computer fairly often and need everything to be centralized and web-based. Here's some quick thoughts on each service currently out there:

Feedbin: This is a nice simple reader interface, clean and doesn't get in the way. I'd describe it as feeling like 2007-era Google Reader before they added social features to the app. It costs $12/yr which is good to hear, but so far I've found myself having to click every headline to see a post, as it doesn't seem to offer the low-friction "river of news" showing all new posts from all the blogs you follow in a single stream that automatically marks themselves as read as you scroll. This also required an uploaded backup of my Google Reader blog list, causing it to think every single blog I follow had all new items. This meant I had to hit "mark as read" for all and start over.

Newsblur: A popular suggested service to me was this one, which is normally free up until I think 100 feeds then it is $24/yr and I saw a $36/yr option for the heaviest users. This service is slammed and took me a day to even sign up, but once on their development server, I was really happy with this. I could import my blogs directly from Google Reader and it maintained read/unread status for me. The feature set is really close to maybe 2010-era Google Reader, with a social component including sharing and comments from friends, but I also noticed comments on posts from random readers which could be kind of annoying. There are some attempts to filter items towards stuff you like most, but so far this one is the big champ for a reader replacement.

Feedly: Feedly is slick looking, but annoying in ways. It requires the use of a Chrome extension in my browser that also inserts a little ghosted share icon/feature into the lower right corner of every web page you view, which bugged me. The default views are trying to look like the Flipboard iPad app, but you can get a Reader-like view if you jump deeper into it. I gave up on this shortly after I imported my blogs from Google Reader as it seemed the service was also built on the Google Feed API and would need to transition off that soon. The service seems free so I'd be wary of jumping on board long-term as a replacement.

The Old Reader: This is something I dabbled with last year and coming back to it again I noticed it's pretty close to the way Google Reader looked and worked in 2010-11. They built it to bring back the sharing and commenting aspects, but the service is fairly slow since the Google Reader announcement and I didn't notice a way to pay for an account, so I'm not sure what the future prospects are for it.

There are a lot more options out there and since I tweeted what was essentially meant as a "I volunteer as Tribute to help build a new RSS reader"  I've heard from another half-dozen or so developers and companies working on a Google Reader replacement, so expect to see many more options soon in the coming months.

Google’s new design swagger

I can't help but notice over the last few days how great Google's suite of apps is looking these days. Though the top black bar threw me for a loop at first, I got used to it after a day and now that I've tried the new Gmail theme designs, as well as the new Google Plus, I'm kind of amazed at how well everything looks, works, and feels. It's kind of like that euphoric feeling the week after a new major OS update comes out for your favorite computer and everything just works better.

People thought it was Google hiring original Macintosh designer Andy Hertzfeld, but he set the record straight that his role was small and it was a whole team of great designers.

Here's my pet hypothesis: A bunch of designers at Google figured out a way to make their user testing reveal the benefits of better looking apps, sites, and pages. I don't know how they did it, either by honestly sharing better looking apps or subterfuge, either way I don't care because I love the end result and it's something I never thought in a million years would happen, but Google products suddenly look well-designed.

Why there is a Save button on Gmail’s compose new email screen on the iPad

Gmailcompose_317x207  I figured out why there is a giant "Save" button on the new mail screens of Gmail on the iPad. 

I was writing a long email to a friend, and I wanted to copy/paste a URL into the message. The URL was already in another open tab, so I simply switched over to it, waited for it to reload, copied the URL from the address bar, then switched back to my Gmail screen.

…and my gmail new message window was blank. Poof! My unsent email was gone.

Turns out I had a 400 comment monster thread loaded in another tab and the iPad seems to not do so well with memory allocation for rendering all your open web windows, clearing out and reloading them whenever you re-request them.

The funny part is that after five years of using Gmail, I've grown so used to its automatic saving of drafts that it never occurred to me that I even had to hit that Save button myself. I assume the javascript necessary to auto-save drafts isn't available on mobile safari, but the big takeaway here is hit the Save button whenever you're in the middle of writing an email and you want to switch apps or switch windows.

Google Maps adds a cycling layer

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I'm really happy to hear Google launched their support of bikes in their Maps app today. There was talk about how this was in development way back when they launched walking directions and subway map details, and I imagine there had to be a lot of work to bring safer bike lane/street information into a mapping app in a way that can't really be automated. A full city list is at the tail end of this Bike Hugger post.

Anil likes to say that when you're a web developer and you're considering adding features to not merely think about the technical aspects, but to think more about the cultural aspects of your decisions. I have high hopes this is potentially a huge cultural change for Americans used to driving 1-3 miles to run small errands around town. Knowing that you could ride a bike safely over a short distance in about the same time it takes to drive and park could get a lot of people exercising more, burning less foreign oil in their gas tanks, and do good for the environment. I can't wait to see this feature spread to more cities.

The Benefits of Hindsight

Like the original iPod thread at macrumors, I love reading last year’s announcement of YouTube getting funded. Post GooTube deal, Sequoia’s $11.5 million invested netted them $495 million in return. With that in mind, these quotes from the post and linked blogs are great:

“The Web 2.0 funding frenzy is in full effect.”

“People on the street in Montana aren’t talking about [YouTube]… It will be some years out before general people become users.”

“…emerging land of absurdity where a live prototype that can be replicated in 90 days, that has no business model or revenue is considered a business.”

Google buys YouTube for $1.65 billion

Holy crap, the rumors were true: Google buys YouTube for $1.65 billion

I’m really happy about this and think it’s a good thing. Like I said last month, YouTube offers a fundamental shift in how video is shared online and provided a free hosting outlet for millions of people. YouTube proved that broadband and video can actually work and it doesn’t have to cost every producer an arm and a leg. The rest is all details, though I understand profits and lawsuits over IP are pretty big details.

I would put this purchase up there with the Blogger deal. Google saw this app that provided a huge shift in how people interact online and snapped it up. Same with Writely, same with Picasa (though I’m sure they wanted Flickr back when it was independent). Google used to just be a search company but now they’re looking more like a very smart media company buying up all the best-of-breed services.

I do wonder how on earth they’ll fold YouTube into Google. If they just merged the YT content into Google Video, all the personality and social aspects of YouTube would be lost, but if it stays independent, then they have two brands offering much of the same product competing for engineering and legal resources.

Congrats to the YouTube team and kudos to Google for snatching it up and keeping bandwidth costs at zero for young filmmakers.