from Google I/O's photo gallery
from Google I/O’s photo gallery

For many people, staying on top of email has become something of an ordeal.

It remains essential, of course, both for personal and work-related communications, but increasingly, our inboxes are overrun by retail messages, promotional items, newsletters and social media updates.

This problem is even worse and more complicated on mobile devices, with their tiny pop-up keyboards and limited screen space.

A number of startups have been working on this problem, one of which came up with the iOS app Mailbox, which at present works only with Gmail accounts.

But now Google is attempting to take on the email clutter problem directly, introducing this week a way for users to toggle between different categories of messages:

  • Primary – the default tab for your primary messages from friends and family
  • Promotions – daily deals, Groupon offers, etc.
  • Social – Facebook and Twitter updates, etc.
  • Updates – bills, receipts, bank statements, etc.
  • Forums – incoming messages from mailing lists and email subscriptions

Eliza Kern on GigaOM gave it a positive review. “Once I enabled the new look, the tabs correctly sorted my emails without any effort from me at all. And no effort is generally something people like. So this could be a nice solution for people who don’t want to deal with new email apps like Mailbox.”

The engineering challenge involved in the automatic sorting of messages into categories is substantial. Google essentially has to train its computers to identify the various types of emails by signals embedded in their metadata–a task made only somewhat easier by the sheer volume of messages flowing through its platform.

Meanwhile, Mailbox co-founder and CEO Gentry Underwood says his company is strictly focused on solving the mobile email challenge.

“People aren’t trying to do the same things with mail on mobile devices as on a desktop,” he says. “When they are out and on the go, they are just trying to stay on top of their messages. So what we offer is a form of triage. You can deal with what you can and delay the rest until you can sit down and do it correctly later.”

Mailbox, which was acquired by the file-sharing company Dropbox in March, offers time-based swipe options, whereby you can choose to swipe messages right or left, “snoozing” some of them onto various lists for later use, archiving messages or deleting them.

Google says its new sorting system works on mobile platforms as well.

Gmail Rolls Out Latest Attempt to Attack Email Clutter 7 May,2014David Weir



David Weir

David Weir is KQED's senior editor for digital news.  He previously worked at Rolling Stone, Salon, Wired Digital, Excite@Home, Mother Jones, and as a co-founder and executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Over the past 40 years, he and his teams have won dozens of awards, including a National Magazine Award, an IRE Award and a Webby. He has authored or co-authored four books, including (with Mark Schapiro) Circle of Poison.

He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Michigan, and has taught journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford and San Francisco State.

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