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Ex-Googlers resurrect Google Inbox interface as “Shortwave” email


Is that Google Inbox? Nope, that's Shortwave.
Enlarge / Is that Google Inbox? Nope, that’s Shortwave.

Google Inbox has been dead for nearly three years, but the people have not forgotten. Google promised to bring many of the innovations of Inbox to its surviving email client, Gmail, but never really did. If you still miss Inbox and how easy it made managing email, maybe the time has come to venture outside of Google’s client offerings.

Meet “Shortwave,” a new email startup from a few former Googlers that exactly replicates the Google Inbox interface. Every major innovation from Inbox is back: emails get collected up into “bundles” called things like “updates,” “promotions,” and “social,” and messages can also be categorized by age. Critically, the “Sweep” button is back, which lets you mark multiple emails in a bundle as “done” with a single click.

The sweep button archives every email in a section.
Enlarge / The sweep button archives every email in a section.

The sweep button was Inbox’s biggest productivity booster, and it’s still something Gmail has never replicated. Gmail has a “check all” button, but that’s unintelligently going to select everything on the page. Sweep lets you easily banish anything in an entire section. Gmail has a mode that sorts email by category, but it places those categories into totally separate tabs, and you can never scan your whole inbox from one page. Inbox and Shortwave put bundled emails and regular emails in a single page, so you can see everything. The two user interfaces mostly have the same ingredients, but Shortwave and Inbox are focused on productivity, while Gmail takes multiple clicks on multiple pages.

Shortwave actually isn’t a standalone email service yet. Just like Inbox, it’s an alternative client for Gmail. On one hand, this means it’s supereasy to try out. On the other hand, you’ll need to grant this app access to your Gmail account and all your mail. That’s a scary proposition coming from a new company, but the people behind Shortwave are reputable. The project was cooked up by a bunch of ex-Googlers from the Firebase push-messaging division. The monetization strategy also isn’t evil: like Slack, Shortwave is free to use with limited 90-day access to your email history. Unlimited email history through search and the “all mail” page requires signing up for the “standard” plan, which is $9 per person, per month. The free version has no ads, and Shortwave’s privacy policy says it “does not sell Personal Data.”

The bundles in Shortwave. All of these are accordion-style buttons that expand to show each email.
Enlarge / The bundles in Shortwave. All of these are accordion-style buttons that expand to show each email.

Shortwave

There are also numerous quality-of-life improvements, like a snooze and “pin” buttons (again ripped straight from Inbox), undo send, and a do-not-disturb setting for notifications. There’s an iOS app and desktop PWA, but the one thing you can ding Shortwave for right now is the Android app. It exists but only as a “work-in-progress,” “beta” app that, at the moment, mostly seems to be recycled webpage code. The iOS app looks great and native, but the Android app isn’t there yet. It’s serviceable if you just want to get notifications, swipe away bundles of emails, and read some things. But the Android version would look much better as a native app.

I’m amazed that the startup mindset demands that, even when you are a bunch of ex-Googlers cloning a dead Google product, you still can’t prioritize the Google phone app. Life is tough out there for Android users.

Just like Slack and Google Apps, there are future plans for an “enterprise” package for companies. A Slack-like company appears to be the long-term goal here. While Slack attacks the enterprise email market via a messaging app, telling users to “Send a DM instead,” Shortwave wants to attack the market from the exact opposite direction. The company blog is home to a wild post titled “Email: The Future of Messaging,” which I’m not quite sure I can wrap my head around right now. Like Gmail and Google Talk, though, some messaging features are trojan-horsing their way into Shortwave. You can give them a try. There is certainly some messaging expertise from the ex-Firebase employees since they built a system that currently powers all of Google’s push messaging.

I’m surprised that a company with this kind of business model currently doesn’t do any email hosting of its own and runs everything through Gmail service. But I’m sure company-hosted email is on the roadmap somewhere. If nothing else, the service is a breeze to try out, and you can relive the glory days of Google Inbox. If you like Shortwave, maybe you’ll stick around.

Listing image by Shortwave



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