When Google killed its Gmail alternative Inbox in 2018, it promised that several of its ideas would eventually come to Gmail. Some did come, but most of the things that made Inbox a success, like “bundles,” never did. Instead, in the ensuing years, Google has crammed its entire productivity suite into Gmail to get people to use the rest of its Workspace services. And it gets even worse as Google gears up to roll out a major Gmail update that’s messier than ever.
Gmail’s evolving interface works for those invested in Google’s ecosystem, but it doesn’t help people search their cluttered inboxes every day. It’s easy to see why: it still dumps you a list of emails with no real structure other than an unpredictable set of filters to keep out promotional messages, spam, and social media updates.
The email apps that offer to fix Gmail’s shortcomings were equally disappointing to me: Newton Mail couldn’t keep an owner, nor my trust. Spark had too many features that I didn’t need. Superhuman, a $30-a-month email app that wants to make you feel like you’re superpowered, promising too much, and delivering too little. But after years of app-hopping, my search for a successor to Google Inbox may finally come to an end, thanks to a refreshingly minimalist new Gmail client called Shortwave.
Shortwave was designed by a group of ex-Googlers, including Andrew Lee, who previously founded Firebase, an app development platform, and sold it to Google. Shortwave — priced at $9/month, unless you’re okay with just three months of email history — isn’t skipping its aspirations to step into Inbox’s shoes. It even looks and works like this with a blue-accented theme, but it’s more than just a clone. It builds on the effective design choices Inbox made possible with some of its own, and in the two weeks I’ve spent with it, it’s made me much more productive at managing my email.
When I launch Shortwave – available on the web, iOS and Android – I don’t drown in an avalanche of emails. Instead, the non-essential items, like social media updates and automated confirmations like Amazon’s, are neatly bundled together, and the threads I’ve previously tagged for, say, one project, are sorted into another by default. This all happens in the same inbox, not under different tabs like Gmail, which allows me to keep an eye on it and prevent clutter from piling up.
Since most of my inbox is already organized when I jump in, there are far fewer emails that require my immediate attention. It feels like my work has been cut in half: I know the messages can wait under bundles like “Newsletters”, and I can quickly get to the emails that matter without stressing about the unread count (which doesn’t exist anyway) on shortwave).
However, the most notable feature of Shortwave for me is how it forced me to rethink how I approach my email inbox. I used to dove in head on with no plan – treating what was on top first and probably missing what was on the bottom.
When I log in now, there is a certain routine in it. I first archive all the junk at once with the “swipe” button, which immediately unclogs my inbox. Then I check for unread posts in the “Favorites” section, which contains emails from the people I’ve contacted most often, to know if I have any updates from my editors and to respond to those messages, because that’s usually my top priority, and I can now find them without manually going through countless piles of other posts.
Then I can easily sort the rest: I pin the most urgent items to the top of the inbox, snooze what can wait, drag and drop related emails together, and put them in a new bundle that I can revisit later. Other than actually answering my emails, it doesn’t take me more than a few minutes, and you can do just about anything with keyboard shortcuts.
Like many people, I tend to go to my phone and check my emails first thing in the morning, but Shortwave’s Do Not Disturb mode now keeps all emails until later and keeps my email anxious brain under control. The app also allows me to choose the type of emails I want to be notified of and clear my notification panel of clutter like deals and marketing updates.
And unlike many new email clients, it feels like Shortwave strikes the right balance when it comes to information density. The interface is just spacious enough that my inbox shows many emails at once, doesn’t appear as one big, cluttered blob of text, and is easy to navigate – unlike Inbox’s, whose design has been criticized for its low information density. I also think it’s much better to set up busy threads, clearly show when there’s a new recipient in an email chain, or when someone pings me directly rather than everyone by splitting the reply-all into a subthread.
To bring these kinds of conveniences to Gmail, I had to trust that Shortwave wouldn’t sell or read my emails, which technically they can. While it has become more difficult for me to transfer my data to new companies than ever, Shortwave makes a compelling case. In addition to a clear policy stating that Shortwave does not monetize personal data, it says it has passed a Google-mandated annual audit – which can cost third parties more than $75,000 and where their security protections are tested. It also helps that the business model relies on a premium subscription, not advertising or data brokerage.
(Google and the company that did Shortwave’s audit, NCC Group, declined to comment.)
Although Shortwave is now my default inbox, I still occasionally have to return to Gmail because it can’t schedule emails yet and is missing a few default folders, such as spam. The lack of a delete option was also a disappointment. Lee claims all of these are “high on the priority list,” but he can’t comment on when those updates will arrive.
Another thing that could change Shortwave’s experience for me is the startup’s bigger ambitions to replace apps like Slack with email. On Shortwave, organizations can create “workspaces” where employees can chat in real time as they would on a messaging service. Except in the case of Shortwave, all messages are emails. Right now, these enterprise tools live in their separate division and don’t get in the way, but whether that changes (and pollutes Shortwave’s clean inbox the same way Google did Gmail) remains to be seen.
I’m skeptical of Shortwave’s plan to turn email into the silver bullet for all work communications, but if my squeaky clean inbox is any indication, it can certainly restore a state of calm in your chaotic relationship with emails and that hole in Inbox format fix the world.
Shortwave doesn’t try to reinvent or complicate email, and the smart inbox is simple and practical. So much so that while using it, I could only wonder why Google never transferred all of its features from Inbox to Gmail. Many of the features may seem like minor additions to Gmail, but together they make for an email experience that’s less frustrating and more functional.