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Gmail's latest move isn't the end of email, it's a new beginning

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The Gmail API could turn our email accounts into gold mines, and that's a good thing

Everybody loves to hate email.

It’s overwhelming, all-encompassing, and perhaps most importantly, lacks the context we’ve come to expect from modern communication apps. It's hard to blame email, though, since most apps we use for managing it can only communicate via IMAP, an age-old standard that's slow and difficult to work with. When Google announced its Gmail API a few weeks ago, it seemed like we might finally have an answer to the question we’ve all been asking: when is email going to start working like the rest of our apps?

When is email going to start working like the rest of our apps?

Google announced that any app could now talk to Gmail using today’s faster, more modern languages — languages that every web developer speaks. The Gmail API lets you ask Google for threads, messages, drafts, and labels three to ten times faster than with IMAP, Google says — but, the company says that it shouldn’t be used to replace IMAP. There are two reasons for this: first, the Gmail API can’t deliver push notifications (yet), and second, there are limits on the number of API requests you can make per day, which could cause trouble for people with large inboxes.

What it can do is provide an interface for any app to interact on a small scale with your Gmail account without having to create an entire mail client. When that happens, Google won’t have replaced email — it will have actually extended it. Instead of killing email as some hoped it would, the Gmail API gives email new life.

With the Gmail API in hand, it’s finally possible to create apps that live on top of email without spending weeks or months on them. "Google’s intent is really to power apps and services that make use of email data, but aren’t trying to be email clients. That is its own emergent category of email apps," says Javier Soltero, founder of mail app Acompli. "Through IMAP this is cumbersome and requires you to know more about email than you really want to unless you’re building an email client," he says. "The API navigation of that structure is a lot easier to follow." In plain English, instead of having to deal with building an IMAP-syncing engine to access an inbox, you might only need to query Google’s server for a specific search term or email address.

Michael Koziarski, one of the creators of the Triage email-management app, says using the API could’ve saved his team a month of development time, but might have limited its compatibility with other services. "The obvious downside is that supporting the Gmail API will be 100 percent incompatible with every other email provider out there," he says. "If we were starting again today, we’d almost certainly use the Gmail API and abandon support for other email providers." Even for updating existing applications, the API could prove useful. Pierre Valade, co-creator of calendar app Sunrise, says his team could very quickly whip up a service for scanning users’ Gmail inboxes for flight emails and auto-adding them to your calendar, or showing recent emails with a specific event attendee.

"Google’s intent is really to power apps and services that make use of email data, but aren’t trying to be email clients."

"I expect the innovation will come from developers having to spend a lot less time wrestling with IMAP to do relatively simple things — we’ll all be able to spend a lot more time on the functionality we want to add," says Aye Moah, chief of product at Baydin, which makes email management app Boomerang. Moah and her team have already integrated the Gmail API and saw an immediate increase in their app's performance.

With its Gmail API, Google is clearly starting to treat Gmail more like a platform and less like an email server. Soltero says that if developers are receptive, Google will likely expand the capabilities of its API to do lots more. It’s a big, important step — our email accounts contain so much valuable information that has been until now only accessible by email clients and those with knowledge of IMAP. Now, accessing Gmail data like contacts, emails, and even sending messages is accessible to anyone — assuming you’ve given their app the permission to integrate with Gmail.

"You don’t get to call yourself a platform. You earn the right to be called a platform."

And as for better, faster email clients, we're not entirely out of luck. Mailbox for Mac, which recently launched in beta, offers a vision for how email might feel if unbound by age-old technologies. Within two seconds of signing into the app, every single email loaded into my inbox. Instead of operating as a full-fledged IMAP email client like Sparrow or Apple Mail, which download all your email in order to manage it locally, Mailbox serves as an interface for your messages in the cloud. Once you layer a speedy service on top of email, it’s easy to forget you’re dealing with emails at all. Apps like Mailbox and Acompli, perhaps paired with some smaller, sharper tools (like Triage) built with the Gmail API, could offer some consolation for the seemingly eternal nature of email.

The virtue of email is that it’s interoperable, after all, unlike the standards of most communication apps we use today. But, adding more proprietary features to Gmail might create more lock-in. "You don’t get to call yourself a platform. You earn the right to be called a platform," says Soltero. Gmail, he says, is an incredible platform that has until now only been accessible by a select few. This might mean we’re going to start seeing a whole new variety of email apps to let us interact with the enormous repositories of professional and personal emails that we’ve had longer than we've used any social network.

The Gmail API won’t be enough to make you love your email, but it might help you hate it a little bit less. With email, the most ubiquitous form of electronic communication, even that seemingly small victory could turn out to be a big one.