Google Opens Gmail
Google Inc. wants to make it easier for other Internet applications to use information in your email, assuming you are one of the hundreds of millions of people using its Gmail service.
The move, announced Wednesday at the company's developer conference in San Francisco, is a first step toward turning Gmail into a platform for developers who want to leverage the contents of users' email for productivity and other applications. A travel app, for example, could scan your email inbox for booking confirmations and automatically compile them into an itinerary. An expense app can dig through your inbox for receipts and automatically file them to your cloud-based account.
The idea of plugging into email contents is not new, and many outside applications already leverage mail if users allow it. But Google is creating a new application programming interface, or API, to make it easier for outside developers to plug in. It will replace IMAP, a common but complex way for applications to communicate with most email services, limiting the number of apps that can work with Gmail.
Gmail also scans the contents of users' emails, to help Google show relevant ads alongside messages. When this feature first came out there was an uproar, and the company has had to handle simmering criticism of the feature and jabs from rivals such as Microsoft. Privacy concerns about third parties scanning the contents of email could limit the success of Gmail as a developer platform. But the service has so many users that the opportunities for Google and developers to carefully access some information from emails are too enticing.
At its 2012 developer conference, Google said Gmail had 425 million users, including 66 of the top 100 universities and five million businesses. That makes it one of the world's largest online services, placing it somewhere between Facebook with more than one billion monthly active users and Twitter which has over 250 million.
"This could be one of the biggest app platforms out there because all the data is there and all the users are there," said Aleem Mawani, a former product manager at Google and co-founder of startup Streak, which has built a customer- relationship-management application for Gmail.
Email has yet to take off as a platform because it is a "giant pain" to build apps using IMAP, a system created in the 1970s that is not based on modern web communication tools such as Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, Mawani said.
The update to Gmail to make apps possible isn't the first time Google has sought to set its email service apart from rivals including Microsoft's Hotmail and Yahoo's web email service. When Gmail first launched it offered significantly more storage than the other services, which quickly attracted users to the service. Just as those other services followed suit by offering more storage, they could follow Gmail's lead in moving away from IMAP says Mr. Mawani.
Encouraging more developers to make Gmail apps could in turn should keep consumers using the service, according to Alex Jones, general manager for consumer and developer solutions at Return Path, an email data analytics company.
"Gmail wants to be the inbox of choice for everyone," Jones said. "If they can make a strong platform for users and developers, there's no reason to stray to rival services."
Using the Gmail API, Streak developed a new feature that puts a snooze button at the top of a user's inbox. If they don't have time to read an email right away, they can click the button and the message will be archived and bumped to the top of the inbox at a later, scheduled time.
While developers are excited by the potential of Gmail, the email service contains a lot of personal information about users, so any sharing of information with third parties has to be handled carefully.
The new Google API may help with this. With IMAP, developers had to access all of a user's messages to make their applications work, even if the apps only needed one specific type of data. The new API lets developers access only what they need. For example, if their app just sends mail on behalf of a user and does not read mail, developers can limit their request to send-only, DeFriez said.
"There are actually less privacy concerns than IMAP," Mawani said.
Write to Alistair Barr at firstname.lastname@example.org and Rolfe Winkler at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications
This item was corrected June 26 at 7:56 p.m. ET to reflect that outside developers accessing data from Google Inc.'s Gmail program can limit their request to the information needed to send an email and not examine the contents of the message. The original version omitted the word "not," suggesting the developer would examine the contents.
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