Gmail is getting a major overhaul: with Google's email client gaining a suite of new features that promise better security, easier use and less information overload.
Google's lead product manager for Gmail Jacob Bank says the changes are some of the most far-reaching that Google has made to its G Suite services to date, describing it as a "ground-up rewrite of our flagship product".
So what exactly is new in Gmail? Bank breaks the improvements into three main areas, covering security, intelligent assistance and ease-of-use.
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Bank describes 2016 as "a very bad year for email, in particular for the public perception of the safety of email as a communication mechanism", referencing "some very, very high-profile leaks emails that had serious global consequences".
To try to restore confidence in email, Bank says the Gmail team has "been revisiting some of the fundamental assumptions about email security", and devised the following improvements:
Confidential mode is designed to limit damage to a company in the event of an email hack, particularly the risk posed by email accounts offering access to "years and years worth of confidential information".
Users can now designate an email as being sent in confidential mode, which allows the sender to revoke access to that email's content, either manually or by setting it to expire at a specific time.
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When an email is sent using confidential mode, Gmail doesn't send the content of that email. Instead, a link to the content is sent, and when the email is opened by the recipient the link will be fetched and displayed as a normal email in a Gmail client. If the recipient is using a non-Gmail client, they can click on the link to access a Gmail-hosted portal, where they can see the confidential content.
Another feature of confidential mode will be two-factor authentication (2FA) protection for individual emails. 2FA offers increased security by requesting a secondary form of authentication — usually a passcode sent via SMS — and is typically used to help secure account log-ins.
Gmail will now offer 2FA protection for confidential mode emails, which will require the recipient of the email to enter an SMS passcode before they can read the message.
"We think this will dramatically cut down on hacker's abilities to access sensitive information when they gain access to a recipient's account," says Bank.
Emails sent in confidential mode will also be able to be locked down to prevent them being forwarded, downloaded, copy/pasted or printed.
"What we've seen, especially in business scenarios, is that lots of these leaks happen accidentally or near accidentally. They didn't realize they weren't supposed to forward the email, or they saw 'Do not forward' but they didn't think it applied to them and hitting the forward button was just so easy," said Bank.
New phishing warnings
Gmail will now flag potential phishing emails — spoof emails designed to steal personal details or credentials from individuals — with these big banners at the top of emails, colored red, yellow or grey depending on the risk.
"We've had these banners in Gmail for a long time that are quite subtle and quite difficult to interpret," said Bank.
"Either people ignored them or people didn't understand technical jargon that was being used. Or people kind of understood but didn't fully appreciate the risk.
"So we undertook a massive effort to redesign all of our warnings within the UI. If you see this message at the top of the email, you're not going to click the link inside of it, both because the warning is very prominent and impossible to ignore, and explains to the user in plain language what the attacker might be trying to do."
Google's goal with Gmail's new intelligent features is to "help people better manage the torrent of incoming email, solve the email-overload problem, or at least make it less devastating".
Ever forgotten to reply to an important email because you got distracted and it then got lost in the tide of new messages? Gmail's new nudging feature is designed to address these sort of issues.
Nudges will bump important emails older than two days back up to the top of your inbox, judging what's important based on analysis by machine-learning models. It will also flag emails you've sent asking someone a direct question if they haven't replied within three days.
"These have been incredibly popular internally, and with our trusted testers with business users," says Bank.
"We don't nudge very often, but when we do it can save people from missing making a really high consequence mistake."
Fewer push notifications
Gmail will also introduce a 'High-priority notifications' setting, which filters out the vast majority of push notifications for new emails, only showing those deemed as important or urgent email messages.
"We've tuned this threshold just right, so that people don't feel like they're missing out but that we've also cut down on the clutter as much as possible," says Bank.
"The result is we've cut 97% of all push notifications across Gmail users, in particularly saving our busiest users from interruption."
This feature will offer a one-click option that will unsubscribe users from mailing lists whose messages they don't read on a regular basis — helping to cut the quantity of unwanted mail.
Google's Smart Reply feature will be offered via the Gmail web client.
The feature suggests three short responses to emails. Once the user has selected a response, they can send it immediately or edit it.
Bank says that 10% of all replies on mobile now start with a Smart Reply
Bank describes the last set of new features as being designed to help users get through their inbox faster.
All the most-used Google apps will now be available on a side panel on the right of the screen, which will show the likes of Calendar, Google Keep, Google Tasks and any other Gmail add-ons you have installed.
The new panel is designed to make it easier for users to copy content to and from these apps without leaving Gmail, for instance to check the calendar when agreeing a meet-up via email or to add an email to Google Tasks.
Hover actions allow users to take quick actions by hovering the mouse cursor over icons in the top right of the message and immediately choosing an action, for instance to snooze a message from a dropdown list of dates or to RSVP to a meeting invite.
Attachments to emails are now visible in the inbox, as icons below the message, making them accessible without having to open the email itself.
Snooze allows users to schedule an important email to come back to the top of an inbox at a later point.
Native offline access
As the name suggests, this feature will provide an offline version of Gmail in the browser that works identically to the online version, save for not having network access. Users will be able to sync and download new messages when they reconnect to a network.
While offline access is already available in the Gmail Chrome app, Bank says it has a different UI and fewer features.
"This has been a customer request for a long, long time, in particular from some of our high-profile business customers who have executives that fly on planes a lot," he says.
Native Google Tasks apps for Android and iOS
The new Google Tasks apps for Android and iOS will allow G Suite users to update tasks on smartphones and have those changes reflect in Google Tasks on the desktop.
Which existing features will be cut?
No features will be cut in the redesign.
When will the Gmail redesign happen?
The rollout of the new features will take place internationally and will be phased in over several months.
From today, individual Gmail users will be able to opt-in to try the new features under the Settings menu. The new Gmail will also roll out to businesses in the G Suite Early Adopter Program, and can be enabled in the admin console.
In the coming months, Google will try to encourage more users to use the features via in-product promotions, and, once Google is confident in how the new features will be received, it will move all Gmail users across.
Will the look of the UI change?
There will be three settings that control how densely emails are packed together in the new Gmail inbox, with users able to choose between default, comfortable and compact.
Upon opening the new Gmail, users will be asked to choose which UI setting they prefer.
This density setting refers to how tightly emails are packed together vertically, but users will also be able to use a hamburger menu to slide the left-hand panel in and out, to control how much screen space is dedicated to email content.
Will these new features be available on mobile and desktop?
The majority of new features will be available on Android and iOS smartphones, alongside the desktop web client.
Will Google continue offering Inbox?
Yes. Bank says Google will continue to test out new features in the Inbox email client before bringing them to Gmail.
"Inbox is sort of the next-gen early adopter version, whereas Gmail is the stable flagship that will eventually get all of the benefits of the best features of Inbox," he says.
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Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.