If you’ve followed my ramblings for long, you know how I feel about Inbox — Google’s short-lived experiment with reinventing the way we experience email.
Inbox, built atop Gmail’s foundation, was a wildly different approach to managing messages. At its launch in 2014, the service was described as being “years in the making” — a “completely different type of inbox, designed to focus on what really matters.” Google told us Inbox was “designed for the problems we’re going to see in the next 10 years” and painted the app as being the future of not only Gmail but also of email itself.
And then, well — Google Googled. After pushing the idea of Inbox and adding in extra features and polish for a while, the company lost interest in the product, let it languish unattended, and eventually killed it off about four years after its birth.
While Inbox itself may be gone, though, its spirit lives on thanks to the ongoing work of one of its creators — a now-former Googler named Michael Leggett who’s taken it upon himself to keep the same minimalist principles that made Inbox so effective alive and available for anyone.
Leggett has just announced the launch of a new full-time business called Simplify. Its goal, as he puts it, is to improve the not-so-optimal design of web services from the outside — using his coding and design chops and relying on regular ol’ web extensions as a vehicle for delivering his vision. And if that sounds slightly familiar, it should.
Last spring, Leggett created a browser extension called Simplify Gmail. I wrote about it in this same space and still rely on it personally to this day. It’s no exaggeration to say the simple-seeming software has completely changed the way I interact with Gmail. It remakes Gmail into a totally different beast — one that doesn’t resemble Inbox directly, in terms of its interface or style, but absolutely does bring to mind the concepts that made Inbox beloved by so many productivity-minded email monsters (myself included).
That extension was originally just a hobby, born out of something Leggett had worked on for his own use and for the benefit of family and friends ever since leaving Google in 2015. And now, he’s taking that same idea, applying all of his attention to it, and getting ready to turn into something even bigger.
“My goal is not just making your inbox nicer,” he tells me. “I really do think that there’s an imbalance between companies and their goals and users and our goals. … This is about making technology work for us, not us work for technology.”
So what does that mean, in practical terms? Well, first, Leggett’s Simplify Gmail extension — which has amassed roughly 70,000 active users as of this moment, according to the Chrome Web Store, with a rarely-seen five-star review average — is about to get a major upgrade. The software will gain numerous new features and under-the-hood improvements, all of which will exist within the regular Gmail website and without any worrisome access being granted or sensitive information being shared. (Leggett is adamant about maintaining full privacy protection and says his software will never send or receive any user data or incorporate any ads, analytics, cookies, or other trackers.)
But beyond that, it’ll also be converted into one small piece of an upcoming subscription service — one that’ll bring the same design-shifting principles into other Google apps and web properties. It’s an approach Leggett hopes will allow him to devote the time needed to continue expanding and maintaining his offerings and bringing his signature vision to more and more places.
“I hate the visual noise and hate when products don’t do what I want them to do, and I love fixing that,” he says. “Instead of kvetching about it and instead of saying, ‘This is what it should be’ and kind of just judging, I prefer to dig in and say, ‘Look, there are challenges here — what’s a better middle ground?'”
Leggett is still working out the specifics of the pricing but hopes to keep the cost as low as a dollar or two a month, paid annually (something he says would make the project viable for him if even 5 to 10% of his current user base were to opt in). He expects to offer a sprawling suite of Simplify-branded improvements around the web, with upcoming projects already in the works for Google Docs as well as for Chrome itself. And he’ll continue to support and maintain all of that on his own — no small feat, he notes, given how frequently companies like Google play around with the underlying structure of their services.
“It just takes ongoing work,” he says. “No matter how well I build it, things are constantly changing out from under me, and I have a very sophisticated system for actually trying to detect those changes and adapt in real-time.”
It’s a noteworthy contrast in approach from the higher-profile standalone-email-service model attracting lots of attention these days — one exemplified by the heavily hyped $30-a-month Superhuman Gmail app, which gives you a totally separate interface for interacting with Gmail, as well as the recently launched $99-a-year Hey service, which asks you to leave your current inbox and history behind entirely and move into a wholly new email environment.
For Leggett, the decision to build atop what already exists and what so many of us already use was deliberate.
“[Email] shouldn’t be that expensive, and I shouldn’t have to trust a company with that kind of level of access to get a nicer looking freakin’ Gmail that doesn’t have, like, little red dots and icons all over the place,” he says.
This isn’t design by committee
And, of course, working within Gmail is familiar ground for Leggett — who spent years refining Gmail’s design from the inside, as Google’s user experience design lead for the service, before shifting his attention to Inbox and then ultimately moving on to other things. The experience of improving the app from the outside, however, is quite different — something he sees as an advantage compared to the big-company dynamic, where competing forces and overlapping priorities often lead to a vision being significantly diluted by the time it debuts.
“[With Simplify], you’re not getting a design by committee,” he says. “I have a very strong vision and a very strong aesthetic … and so it’s more consistent because it is coming from one voice.”
On that note, Leggett tells me Inbox itself was originally conceived as a much more ambitious service than what we eventually saw. I put together a special Android Intelligence Platinum podcast episode called “The Inside Story of Google Inbox” where you can listen to our entire hour-long conversation and hear the drama-filled tale of Inbox’s progression, its demise, and how all of that led Leggett to where he is today (and I’ll share some highlights from it in my newsletter on Friday), but in short, Inbox’s earliest incarnation involved an accordion-like nav area that let you access the most important parts of numerous Google apps and even some third-party services from right within your inbox — what Leggett and his Inbox co-founder thought of as a “personal information management system.”
The idea, he says, was that “users shouldn’t have to be aware of these other products to take advantage of them” and that you “shouldn’t have to jump between all of them” just to use the features you needed. It’s a notion that seems awfully timely now, at least on a surface level, as Google works to integrate more of its communication services into Gmail.
“We were doing some crazy stuff that people were kind of laughing at us [about], saying that it’ll never scale — and we were kind of like, well, we’re not playing to the rules of now. We’re thinking in a few years the rules will change,” Leggett recalls.
Eventually, Inbox — which was actually under development for six years before we ever saw it externally — was refocused and narrowed down to be solely about email. And that’s when Leggett saw the writing on the wall.
“It’s like, this is just dead man walking,” he says. “You’re competing with Gmail, and the only way to succeed is [if] you have kind of a playground to play and you figure out what works and what doesn’t in a safer environment and then you force it on Gmail” — which, of course, is exactly what ended up happening.
Leggett left the team soon thereafter, and his co-founder of the Inbox concept followed suit before long. In Leggett’s eyes, Inbox is still “the project that could have been.” And now, he’s determined to make up for what was lost along the way and to allow his own vision to reach people in a way it never fully did back then, within the walls of Google.
“I still believe in the vision,” he says. “I don’t want to go to another big company and come up with some great idea and have it rot in a closet and gather dust.”
To that end, Leggett says he’ll never sell Simplify and that he intends to always remain involved with it personally, no matter how it progresses. For now, his next goal is getting the new version (“v2”) of Simplify Gmail out by Labor Day and then slowly easing into the new subscription setup and starting to roll out improvements for other services. As for which specific services will ultimately be included, Leggett has one guiding principle he’ll follow — one that’s served him well throughout his entire design career:
“I only want to do something if I think I can make it a fair bit better.”
It’s a principle that now, more than ever, seems like just what the internet needs.
Sign up for my weekly newsletter to get more practical tips, personal recommendations, and plain-English perspective on the news that matters.
[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]
Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.