Gmail is the world's most popular email service, and the iPhone, as if this week didn't make it abundantly clear, is the world's most popular smartphone. The two have been around for years and years, however the experience of using them together has never been particularly good. Hell, let's be honest, if you're relying on Google's own email apps on the iPhone, your experience is doubleplusungood. But there are plenty of alternatives in Apple's App Store, and it just so happens that the best among them now bears the name of Microsoft Outlook.
I come from the land of Android, where Gmail thrives as a beautifully integrated service that meets all my emailing needs. Seduced by the iPhone's camera, I recently switched over to iOS and, well... why didn't anyone tell me? The Gmail app for the iPhone is a bad joke made up of bad ideas concocted in a bad web browser during the bad times of 2011. It's completely useless without a web connection, I can't swipe to delete messages, and its animations make me wish that it didn't have any animations.
I come from the land of Android and I am not impressed
I couldn't endure more than a day trying to use Google's pseudo-app before I expanded my horizons. I quickly dashed through the usual suspects: Apple's own Mail app, Mailbox, CloudMagic, Boxer, Tipbit, Hop, and a few others that didn't last long enough for me to remember their names. What I quickly discovered was that nobody wants to just give me an email client for my phone: everyone's gunning to reinvent the entire experience and revolutionize the speed and efficiency of my communications. That was usually done by contaminating my Gmail accounts with whole trees of folders and subfolders, which serviced an alien hierarchy that I didn't ask for but was forced to accept.
Mailbox is brilliantly fast and minimalist, but it's totalitarian in its demands for an empty inbox. I happen to be okay with leaving read emails in my inbox, but Mailbox doesn't have an icon badge for just unread messages: it's either a stationary "1" if there's anything unread or a full count of all emails in my inbox. I played along and started archiving everything, but then other limitations emerged, such as the lack of access to my Gmail labels and the absence of a simple "undo" command when swiping something away. The deficiencies in the other email clients were various, though most felt like just poor design decisions. I was particularly bemused by the apps that tried to refashion email conversations to look like chat messages. Equal parts condescension and functionality obfuscation.
Most email apps on the iPhone give you a choice between their way or no way at all
In the end, I narrowed down my shortlist to a pair of practical, clean, and functional email apps: CloudMagic and Acompli, the latter of which is today being rebranded as v1 of Outlook for iPhone. Both let me quickly access my folders and switch between accounts, both provide informative email previews in the Notification Center, and both keep their extra features optional. Where Outlook pulls ahead is in the smoothness and speed of its interactions. To delete or archive an email, I need just a single, fluidly animated swipe. CloudMagic takes a swipe and a tap. Sure, it's a small difference, but when you add up all those small delays over the course of a full working day, the difference between the two apps starts to feel a lot more tangible. Outlook also consumes less of my iPhone's battery power when syncing in the background, which settles the choice for me.
My personal quest for finding the least terrible iOS email client has unearthed precisely that: an app that sometimes emulates, but never equals, the ease and quickness of managing my Gmail accounts on even the cheapest Android smartphone. It's a crummy situation to be in, having to choose between the good aspects of the iPhone and the best mobile email experience, but at least this app makes the trade-off feel tolerable. Now that it's changing its name, the optimist in me would like to think that the former Acompli can help change the entire proposition of using Gmail on an iPhone as well. Microsoft is displaying great urgency in putting its Outlook name on the app just two months after buying Acompli, and though the only noticeable change so far is the switch to its Segoe UI typeface, the roadmap for improvements should be an equally aggressive one.
Outlook v1 could be the start of a beautiful relationship
For all the fractious disputes and cold war tactics going on between Microsoft, Apple, and Google, my best pick for reading Gmail on an iPhone today is being provided by Outlook. I like that. I like an environment where companies are forced to work together and help each other, even if it comes as an accident of their intersecting business plans.