Did you stay up late to watch the Google I/O keynote this year? If so, the many innovations to Google’s services may have impressed you. But amongst the big announcements, like Google Home, Google Lens, and TensorFlow, one of the more fascinating things announced seems to have flown under the radar of major tech publications: Smart Reply coming to Gmail.
Gmail’s new Smart Reply feature is something that has already been around for a bit. It started off in applications like mail organization app Inbox by Gmail and instant messaging app/Whatsapp impersonator Allo. It’s now also available on Gmail’s mobile apps, for Android and IOS. Smart Reply scans the text of the email to find the tone and intent of the mail and suggests a few ways for you to reply. From there, you can click one of the options to have Gmail generate the message body of the email itself for you.
In this writer’s opinion, this is a welcome update to Gmail. On a practical level, it simplifies the repetitive process of managing emails. On a more abstract level, this completely overhauls the very concept of the email itself. Once, email was the new thing. Sending a letter over the internet was quick and easy, eliminating the issues traditional mail had. Yet, with the rise of instant messaging, social media, and video calling, email became traditional mail – an archaic, slow, and complicated process to do something as simple as sending a message.
The statistics support the view that email is dying, too. Team collaboration tools like Slack have already started eliminating email from the workplace. According to TheVerge, teams that use Slack report reductions in internal mail ranging from 50% to 80%. In casual communication, chat apps like Whatsapp have all but replaced email. Fair warning, though: although email is dying, it’ll be a long, long time before it breathes its last.
This new interface, more than anything else, is message-oriented. Everything about it focuses on helping you get your message across, i.e. the original point of email. Leaving aside the implications of letting an advanced intelligence read your private correspondence with such accuracy that it can actually tell you how to reply, this writer’s opinion is that this new interface will, by eliminating the intricacies of navigating an email client interface, help return email to what it was – a way of conveying a message.
And Google isn’t the only ones that seem to have cottoned on to this. Email app Hop has been trying to make email more message-oriented since 2014. Then-Time magazine editor Harry McCracken called it “the email app that thinks it’s instant messaging”. I will argue that Gmail has the better reach of the two – while Hop’s Android app is still in alpha, Gmail has apps on both major phone OS platforms. Gmail’s advantage is its wider reach, plain and simple.
Gmail’s new message-oriented Smart Reply feature won’t save email as a communication form – that’s headed the way of traditional mail and dinosaurs. But it will make the transition a little easier by returning email to its roots.