Mobile Safari Gmail redesign

Google recently updated their Gmail web interface for the iPhone in Mobile Safari. The changes are subtle, but effective. They describe how the interface redesign makes Gmail act more like a native app, and they’re right. But there are some differences that make this new look work more intuitively than a web-app or a native app. A hybrid of the sort, allowing the unique qualities of native app with the full functionality of living within the browser.

The first thing you’ll notice when logging into Gmail, the Safari navigation toolbar disappears. One thing about native applications, given that users are not in a browser, normally no navigation toolbar exists to enter in a URL, you don’t need it.

Full-Screen Mode

Gmail in “Full-Screen Mode” with a fixed-position toolbar.

Gmail’s prior version also had a fixed toolbar with the same navigation UI elements, but the difference was in the placement. It was very cluttered originally, with your controls fixed on the side. The effect was that of a toolbar following your every move. Quite annoying when you are trying to scan your inbox. This time around, it’s affixed to the top status-bar, clean and out of the user’s way.

This is one of my favorite part’s to the redesign. Prior versions might have hid the navigation toolbar at first launch, but when you would pull down to scroll, the URL would reappear. No reappearing now.

Full-Screen Mode

Safari navigation toolbar hidden, giving Gmail “Full-Screen Mode” with a fixed-position toolbar.

But we are still in a browser at the end of the day, so we can’t be sandboxed in. By tapping the status-bar just as if you were trying to scroll to the top in Safari, not only will you fly to the top, but our old friend re-appears. When the user scrolls back down, the toolbar hides once again.

Top Tap

iPhone status bar revealing the Safari toolbar.

They also made some crazy improvements to the page load speed and caching. When one flick’s their finger to scroll down quickly, normally you see a bit of that loading “checkerboard” effect. Scrolling now is more like a momentum-driven gliding.

Fluid Scrolling

While scrolling the Gmail toolbar remains fixed in a better, less obtrusive way than before. Scrolling is also much faster, without the “checkerboard” loading look.

Google keeps impressing me by how much they look into improving the iPhone’s UI. Considering Google is now competing directly with Apple, I think they are clearly taking the higher road. When Apple has a petty dispute over an app they may try to release, that’s when the true innovations come. With the Google Voice HTML5 breakthrough, YouTube and now Gmail, my hat goes off to them.

Talking with Ruben Bakker, author of Mailplane

I love Gmail, I started using it many years ago and have never looked back. In my opinion, Gmail does the best job catching and filtering spam. I get just as much spam as anyone else, my spam folder is full of entertaining emails but none of messages (ok, very few messages) end up in my inbox. The features are endless. But one of my favorite parts of Gmail is the fact that it’s a web-app. None of messages are ever downloaded to my computer taking up space, yet the interface is as robust and intuitive as any mail client I have tried. But there are disadvantages to this kind of setup. Advanced features such as HTML signatures, managing multiple accounts and drag-and-drop file attachments are sometimes more difficult using a web-app.

Mailplane.app

That’s where Mailplane comes to the rescue. Before I take up too much more time explaining why I started using the application, I asked the developer of Mailplane.app Ruben Bakker (@Mailplane), if he wouldn’t mind talking about his application.

Thanks for taking the time Ruben.

What is Mailplane?

Ruben: Mailplane is an email client for the Gmail web interface. It is a Mac-only application, and it works as a “site-specific” browser for Google Mail. In other words, you get the Gmail web interface plus full desktop integration. For instance, you can drag and drop files, folders, or photos to create email attachments. The attachments are reduced in size when possible: Pictures are converted to smaller JPEG files and folders are compressed to a ZIP file. Another example is email notifications. When you get new email, the user gets Growl and sound notifications. Plus the number of unread messages is prominently shown in the application icon in the menu bar. Another important feature is support for multiple Gmail accounts: It’s easy to switch between accounts as passwords are stored in the keychain. Support for multiple HTML signatures is quite popular, too.

How did you get started developing the application?

Ruben: I loved Mac programming. We had already a “family” iMac we shared, but in 2006 I bought my own MacBook. I played around, tried all tools and loved it. But, then I wanted to create something serious; something users would download and use. The Mailplane project started in summer 2006 on the island of Corsica, France.

Where did the idea of making a desktop version of Gmail come from?

Ruben: I used Email in many different applications (Outlook, Thunderbird, Mail.app and more) for business and private use. But, I never felt happy with these solutions. My inbox was a mess and there was never enough space on the server. Then came Gmail and I absolutely loved it: Enough space, threaded conversations, the “Archive” idea, labels instead of folders and access from any computer. However, I missed some desktop feature traditional applications offered. It was a pain to send attachments and new email notifications required a separate application. I see many advantages in using a web application, but it still needs to be integrated into the Mac experience. This is why I started the Mailplane project.

In March 2007 I published the first version and asked for 200 private users. I never anticipated the response: The 200 seats were taken in just one hour - the same day I already had 1000 users on the waiting list. This was the start of the adventure, which finally led in founding a business and quitting my day job.

What do you enjoy most about being a developer in general?

Ruben: I love to create software; I enjoy the freedom of an indie developer. No boss, no company politics, no fixed hours or schedule, no long meetings, and very little paperwork.

Working on Mac software is great. XCode, Interface Builder, Instruments are great tools and the Mac is a joy to use. As an indie developer, I wear many different hats: I’m the programmer, supporter, marketing person, and accountant.

In the beginning it was rather difficult to make decisions, there’s nobody to blame but you.

Also, I need to actively stay in touch with other persons or I get isolated soon.

How do you go about promoting your products?

Ruben: Try to make the Mailplane users happy, by improving the product and by giving them good support. This hopefully leads to positive word-of-mouth marketing.

Of course it’s important to be on the Apple’s download page, to be on the different download pages and to get product reviews, too.

Finally, I constantly try to improve the website and the store.

What are the some of the difficulties of developing an application in which features are part of another organization’s services and/or technologies?

Ruben: Google constantly improves Gmail and Mailplane needs to keep up with these changes. Sometimes, there are Gmail bugs that look like Mailplane problems, which lead to support requests. But, it’s not that bad and there are very positive aspects too.

For one, Mailplane only stores some configuration data - the emails are all handled by Gmail and stored on their servers. No sleepless nights, here :)

Are you working on any other projects besides Mailplane?

Ruben: Yes, I am working on a second product. But, it’s still secret :)

My thanks again to Ruben Bakker for taking the time.

Ruben and Mailplane can be found at http://mailplaneapp.com/ and @Mailplane on Twitter.