Everything you need to know about the "biggest update yet" to Gmail

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Gmail has been given its biggest redesign in years, borrowing from a lot of design elements users of the mobile app will know well

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Today Google has launched what it calls the "biggest update yet" and a "ground-up rewrite" of its hugely popular email service, Gmail, with added security and reducing clutter the major design priorities.

Launched for consumers back in 2004, Gmail soon broke into the enterprise as part of G Suite. It now counts more than 1.4 billion 30-day active users (a Google metric for users who log in once every 30 days).

The update is for the popular web application. One of the headline features is a new right-hand panel which will include various popular add-ons for Gmail, such as calendar and tasks. This will allow users to see their calendar right there within Gmail, making it easier to see availability and schedule meetings without switching tabs.

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During a Google Hangouts with journalists earlier this week, Jacob Bank, lead Gmail product manager, ran through the new features, all with the aim of making Gmail the "most secure", "smartest" and "easiest to use" email app on the market.

Most secure

Starting with security, Bank admitted that "2016 was a bad year for email and public perception of the safety of email, with high profile leaks with serious global consequences".

As a result the Gmail team have been focusing on two specific attack vectors: accidental leaks and phishing.

"Phishing was a huge priority for the team over the last few years," Bank said, before admitting that "unfortunately there is no one silver bullet" to the threat of phishing. The approach then has been a combination of machine learning algorithms that processes all incoming messages, with new warning banners for more prominent alerting. 

In a nutshell: if a message is deemed by Google's algorithms as probably malicious it is marked red, and lesser risks are presented as yellow.

Bank also mentioned the issue of "accidental or semi-malicious leaks", where a sensitive email is forwarded by accident. The answer here is a bunch of new information rights management capabilities to remove the option to forward, copy, download or print messages within G Suite.

Gmail is also adding a 'confidential mode', designed to protect sensitive data in case of an attack. Basically users can now send an email in confidential mode and set expiration dates or revoke previously sent messages. "We think this will dramatically cut down hackers' ability to access content when compromised," he said.

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Practically this means "we don't send the confidential content but a link to the content and in the Gmail client we fetch that link and display it inline normally, or you can go to a Gmail hosted portal to see that content," Bank explained.

Smartest

Then on the smart features, Bank said: "The goal here is to help people better manage the torrent of incoming email."

The first new feature here is called 'nudging', where Gmail will categorise an important email - it may have a direct action or question within it - and bump it back to the top of your inbox if it remains dormant for a couple of days. Similarly if you haven't received a response to a seemingly important email it will be 'nudged' back to the top of your inbox with a suggestion to follow up.

Responding to a reporter's questions about the privacy concerns this feature may raise, Bank said: "It works via automated processing, like our spam and phishing filters. So an algorithm looks at a bunch of signals to make a spam classification and now, on whether you are likely to reply to a message.

"Nudging shares a lot of that same machinery to assess text markers as to whether the user should reply. But rest assured that no Google engineer is reading email content."

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Also, Gmail has revamped its approach to push notifications, which Bank deems "the dominant cause of interruptions" in the workplace. The result is what they call "high-priority notifications" which will cut the number of push notifications down by 97%, according to Bank.

Gmail is also rolling out assisted unsubscribe, where Gmail surfaces communications that you seldom or never open and gives the option of one-click unsubscribe. This is exclusive to mobile.

Finally, smart reply is being rolled out to Gmail for web, a feature which suggests a reply to an email depending on its content, which users of Inbox by Gmail have had access to since May 2017.

Easiest to use

As mentioned before, the new right-hand side panel has been designed to bring the most important auxiliary apps into a Gmail context, including but not limited to: calendar, notes, tasks and any other Gmail add-ons installed.

As a result the Gmail team has also tweaked its horizontal density for the first time now that there is a breakout panel on the right, with the response being that the left-hand panel is collapsible for the first time.

Gmail has also added 'hover actions' so that users can archive, delete, mark unread or snooze emails without clicking into the actual message. It has also added 'attachment chips', which are small tabs below an email subject lines within the inbox itself where attachments can be opened with one click, without having to drill down into the message. Attachment chips are only available in the default view, not compact or comfortable.

Emails can also now be snoozed for a select amount of time, before popping back to the top of your inbox.

Finally, Gmail has added native offline functionality, which has been the most requested feature from customers "for a long time" according to Bank. This means that users can now interact with their inbox offline as they would online, and all actions will then sync automatically once back online, which is handy when travelling. This required a "technical rewrite" of the app, according to Bank.

When is the new Gmail available?

Many of these features will be familiar to mobile Gmail users, as well as users of Inbox by Gmail, which Bank admitted acts as a testbed for new Gmail features. "The general spirit is we try things out in Inbox and if successful we bring them into our flagship product: Gmail," he said.

The new Gmail is rolling out internationally today for business and personal users and is available first on an opt-in basis through the G Suite Early Adopter Program (EAP) and can be turned on in the admin console. Personal Gmail users can opt-in by clicking the gear icon and selecting “try the new Gmail”. Then in the "coming months" Google will push users to switch using in-product promotions.