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Gmail is stuck in the Stone Age. It needs to update its tabbed inbox.

Katie Notopoulos   

Gmail is stuck in the Stone Age. It needs to update its tabbed inbox.
  • Gmail's tabbed inbox hasn't adapted to the modern internet.
  • Newsletters get spread out among different tabs.

I don't think I know anyone who feels good about their email inbox. For a lot of people, it feels like an unmanageable mess of obligations and junk, a "shame closet" repository for a decade of mailing lists you didn't realize you had signed up for. For some people, their inbox is so excruciating that they've just given up — refusing to even check it or declaring email bankruptcy.

This is not a new problem. Gmail, one of the most popular email services in the world, celebrated its 20th birthday in April. When Google introduced the tabbed inbox in 2013, I was in heaven. It completely solved my digital-shame-closet problem with my email. The tabs separated important emails — finally! — from the crush of alerts about Old Navy sales or other email blasts that didn't require my immediate attention.

(I would note here that if you, personally, have developed a better strategy for dealing with your inbox, or you prefer to use a different mail client or app, I'm happy for you. Thrilled. But this conversation is not for you.)

Since then, the tabbed inbox has fallen behind, unable to keep up with the ways that email has changed since 2013. Google is trying to fix it (I'll get to that in a second), but it's not doing enough.

2013: The dawn of the tabbed inbox

When it launched, the tabbed inbox was designed to direct important emails to your Primary tab and send others to Promotions or Social tabs. You could also choose to add Forums and Updates tabs.

In 2013, these tabs made sense. People still received "social" emails — messages from Facebook about birthdays, anniversaries, etc. But in 2024, who is still opening email alerts from Facebook?

This type of sorting no longer really makes sense. My Promotions tab has the daily newsletter from The Information and The Boston Globe, mixed in with an update about new profile views from TikTok, new listings on Redfin (how did I even start getting emails from that?), and an actual promotional email from the footwear brand Merrell.

Google has apparently noticed that the tabbed inbox isn't meeting today's needs and will soon roll out an update meant to alleviate the burden of the swollen Primary inbox.

Google will start adding the Updates tab

The change will add the Updates tab to all user inboxes by default and direct more messages to that tab. Previously, the Updates tab was only an extra option in settings.

"Recently, we conducted an experiment that activates a refreshed version of the Updates inbox in Gmail," a spokesperson from Google told Business Insider. "We received positive feedback from participants and are now bringing the feature to additional users to help them focus on the emails that matter most to them."

This should be great for most people who have been frustrated with their Primary tab being overloaded. Great!

I demand a Newsletters tab

But this still isn't what I dream of getting out of a tabbed inbox.

What I dream of most is a new, dedicated Newsletters tab — over the past few years, I've subscribed to a lot of email newsletters on Substack, as well as regular newsy newsletters from publications such as BI, which send links to top stories. (By the way, I highly recommend signing up for the BI newsletter.)

Right now, my newsletters go (mostly) to the Updates tab, where they get mixed in with a bunch of random stuff. What I'd love is to have a single tab in my email where I can browse through my newsletters — almost like … dare I say it … an RSS feed (RIP Google Reader).

Gmail doesn't allow you to rename or create custom tabs, so I can't create a Newsletters tab for myself.

Yes, you can make "labels" in Gmail to help sort your inbox. I heavily use labels and have a newsletter label, but their function is very different from a tab. I want the tab!

(Not perfect, but there is a Chrome extension that allows you to pin labels to mimic a tab.)

At some point, artificial intelligence will probably completely change the way email works — and the possibilities are thrilling, like being able to ask your AI assistant to search your emails for all receipts and instantly make a spreadsheet of expenses.

But considering the way that AI search results in Google were going last week (it suggested putting glue in pizza, for example), I'm skeptical of how soon and how appealing that will be.

For now, it's high time we demand more from our inboxes — just because email is annoying doesn't mean we shouldn't demand more from it.

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