Email is going places. It’s old tech and might as well be a carrier pigeon in the eyes of youth, but email is continually getting new legs. Apps like Mailbox keep amassing catchy, useful new features, and now we're seeing a glimpse of email's next incarnation: as a platform.
For evidence, look no further than Gmail’s newly announced API. Announced at Google I/O a few weeks ago, the API will give developers programatic access to messages, labels, and other aspects of the Gmail service. In a similar fashion, newly announced startup Inbox promises to be the lay between app developers and people’s mailbox.
"When we think about email, we call it ‘the database of your life,’" says Michael Grinich, co founder and CEO of Inbox. "It’s the digital home for your conversations, memories, and identity."
After about two years of work, Inbox is just beginning to take the wraps off what it’s been working on. The service will provide access to different parts of the mailbox so developers can leverage the information relevant to users. It hasn’t publicly announced the details of its developer program, but it will be a hosted service that will also support Microsoft Exchange. The company is rolling things out gradually, but interested developers can ask for early access now.
The app scenario being widely cited is a hypothetical travel app able to scan emails for upcoming trip details. Instead of the current process of having to forward emails to sites like TripIt.
Context.IO is another service that provides a layer on top of IMAP making it easier for app developers to leverage email data. It also sees this type of database for apps as part of email’s future.
One thing Inbox’s Grinich and Context.IO developer evangelist Tony Blank both agree on is that IMAP isn’t really going anywhere. Even though people got excited about a newer protocol for Gmail with Google’s API announcement, the creaky standard isn’t in trouble.
"There’s a few efforts to try and replace the underlying protocol, but it’s very tough for that to happen," Blank says. "There might be alternative protocols that emerge—IPv4 vs. IPv6—but IMAP will continue to exist and be supported for many years."
The reason IMAP is constantly being marched out to the guillotine is that it wasn’t designed to do these new type of database functions. That means if email is going to turn into the content for apps to use, third-party layers will be necessary.
Even if Gmail’s new API doesn’t take over the industry, the service has still had a tremendous impact on email. Despite Gmail’s increased storage able to be brushed off as declining costs, it might have been the linchpin in changing email’s direction.
"I’ve been using Gmail for many years and they’ve removed the tedious requirement to purge and delete old emails," says Blank. "That fact has created a huge source of email data that dates back many years."
If people didn’t start letting their email pile up in their mailbox, there likely wouldn’t be enough personal information to be relevant. The bottomless pit that is now email might drive some people crazy, but it’s unlocking new possibilities for apps.
If the past is any indicator, email will likely be the basis of some new fad in the future, but right now, it’s headed toward being a personal app database.