A Three Legged Race
This is a little different post for me. It started with a personal encounter that peaked my curiosity and caused me to do some digging and pondering...
I don’t know if you have noticed, but over the past 24 months, competition has been heating up among some major players hoping to own your mobile in-box. To date, those players include Dropbox, a relative newcomer to the email client business, and arch rivals, Google and Microsoft. More about their motives and what prompted me to write this article after a brief history of the race being run.
First out of the blocks was Dropbox, in February of 2013, with their innovative email client, Mailbox. The promise of Mailbox was to help users quickly manage email in order to attain empty in-box nirvana via swipe-based email sorting and filtering:
- a quick swipe to the right and the email is archived
- a full swipe to the left and you can file the email
- a half swipe to the left and you are presented options for snoozing the email, such as later today, tomorrow, next week, etc.
This UI innovation, truly allows users to burn through vast quantities of email quickly and efficiently, clearing their inbox in minutes.
Unfortunately, Mailbox only works with Google mail, so if you are an Exchange user, you are out of luck.
In October of 2014, Google responded with Inbox. Google was careful to state that Inbox is not a replacement for Gmail or the Gmail mobile app; just an alternative. Much like they had done with the roll-out of Gmail in 2004, the Inbox app was introduced by invitation only, and that is still the case as of this writing. The invitation also grants you access to a desktop version of Inbox accessible at inbox.google.com.
There are many things to like about Google’s Inbox app. Inbox is colorful and modern, leveraging user avatars and attachment previews to really bring your inbox to life. It incorporates the best of Mailbox such as swipe-based email sorting and filtering, but it leap-frogs Mailbox by adding some new concepts like reminders, collections and pins. Not surprisingly, its search capabilities are excellent.
As an avid Mailbox user, I quickly adapted to Inbox and it soon became my default email browser -- for Google mail. That’s right; just like Mailbox, Inbox only supports Gmail. ;-(
The most recent contender to join the race is Microsoft, releasing its Outlook for iOS and Android this past January. This is a surprisingly good app, providing a robust bundle of useful features. The new Outlook app integrates, email, file management, contacts and calendaring into a single app.
It goes without saying that a mobile version of Outlook better provide robust support for exchange users -- and this app doesn’t disappoint. What you may not expect, which this app also provides, is robust support for other email platforms including Google.
One of the most useful mobile features in the Outlook app, is the ability to attach files from multiple cloud sources including OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive and Box.net, as well as local files. Its the only app of the three that can do that.
Outlook for iOS and Android also incorporates a version swipe-based email sorting and filtering, although it doesn’t seem to be quite as responsive as the competition.
Microsoft has clearly thrown down the gauntlet by offering cross platform functionality that surpasses both Dropbox and Google; but don't count either company down and out just yet. I suspect we will see updated functionality from both in the future.
So all of this this begs the question: why are these companies competing rigorously to provide the best FREE email client?
Premise: Perhaps it has something to do with advertising dollars? Ya think? ;-)
A Personal Anecdote...
Consider this personal story recounting my wife’s experience last week.
We have an 18 month granddaughter; cute as a bug. Our daughter emailed my wife a picture of her little girl sporting some new OshKosh overalls. All our kids wore Oshkosh when they were little, so my daughter’s message was something like, “Does this outfit bring back memories?”
Within an hour of receiving that email, which did not mention Oshkosh by name, only a photograph of a little girl wearing Oshkosh and a vague mention of her outfit, my wife started seeing Oshkosh ads in her Gmail!
She brought this to my attention, saying, “Certainly this must have been a coincidence, right?” Not necessarily. In fact, the evidence suggests otherwise.
We know that Google has been data-mining Gmail for years in order to present user-targeted advertising in Gmail. In fact they have a patent for the technology (Read: The Natural History of Gmail Data Mining and Google does scan all emails...).
Given the computational horsepower of the Google data centers and Google’s cutting edge advancements in AI and its purchase of Deep Mind, it is easy to believe that Google is data mining our images for information. A bit unnerving, but plausible and highly likely. In fact, there is an annual global image recognition competition called ImageNet, which Google won in 2014. We are seeing similar technology being used by Facebook to identify our friends by face recognition, why not branded overalls?
Dropbox is reported to have a “Deep Learning” team which is another way of saying “Data mining” team. I can only presume that Microsoft has or is developing similar technologies.
The aggregated user data and anonymous matchmaking between advertisers and users made possible by mining our email in-boxes is clearly valuable to advertisers, and thus potentially lucrative to the company that corners the “free email app” market.
The only way to do that is to provide the best user experience. So good for users on one level, but at what cost? If you don’t like the concept of Big Brother holding hands with Big Data, you can always choose to stop using these email apps, but that isn't a very attractive option for most of us.
In the case of Google, the company at least provides users the opportunity to monitor and manage personal Google privacy settings via Google Dashboard.
I am not aware of anything similar to this dashboard from Dropbox or Microsoft. If I am mistaken, please correct me. Of course all these companies have asked for and received our permission to do these things -- when we hastily click accept when presented with their verbose policy and privacy agreements.
To my mind, at some level, agreeing to allow these companies to mine our data in exchange for free and ever improving tools and services is somewhat analogous to concept of commercial television -- it's the cost of admission -- but potentially far more consequential than having to sit through the soap ads.
What do you think? Does any of this bother you or is it simply the cost of our digital society?
Share your thoughts.