Inbox to app developers: Disrupt our email -- please!

Startup plans to make it easier to develop apps that work with existing email services, then reinvent email from the inside out

Inbox wants to kill email and replace it with something better.

That's the long-term plan. In the short term, Inbox wants to make it easier for apps to deal with email from third-party services, from Gmail to one's own Microsoft Exchange servers.

Co-founded by Michael Grinich (formerly of Dropbox) and Christine Spang (of Linux kernel-upgrade outfit Ksplice), Inbox works as a shim layer between you and your email, a way for aging protocols such as IMAP and POP3 to be gracefully replaced with a more modern and flexible option.

The software uses a modern REST API to manipulate individual messages and threads. Low- and high-level mail concepts, such as message drafts, metadata (tags), contacts, attachments, and filtering, are all represented in the API and don't have to be re-implemented by a developer.

Inbox's plan has three phases. The first is to release its core functionality as open source software. This part has already happened; the software, written in Python and licensed under the GNU Affero GPL, is now available on GitHub. SDKs are already available for both iOS and JavaScript, with the latter sporting an example coded in Angular.js.

Phase two is to roll out the Inbox Developer Program, which will provide "a fully managed and scalable service for production deployment," according to the company's project FAQ. While it's slated to be generally available later this year, developers can obtain early access now.

The final phase is the murkiest and furthest out, but it consists of, as Grinich put it in his discussion with TechCrunch, "creat[ing] a new email standard." The implication is that once Inbox becomes established, it can be the basis for an entirely new creation to which existing Inbox-using apps and infrastructure could transition. (Inbox's website hints also at how the product is "a bridge from the past to the future -- a clean slate with modern APIs.")

Such a revolution would hinge on the uptake Inbox finds with developers. One possible advantage is that Inbox's engine exists as an actual software product, not simply an abstract standard waiting to be implemented by existing software monoliths. Also, it's meant to extend existing email systems rather than encourage developers to migrate away from them.

So far, Inbox's strategy for attracting that crowd seems to involve building connectors to the most commonly used existing infrastructure, such as Gmail and Microsoft Exchange. The latter is only available to those who sign up for the developer preview right now.

The biggest hill for Inbox to climb will be the sheer inertia of email as we currently know it. A slew of projects and initiatives determined to remake email have come and gone, and InfoWorld's Galen Gruman has noted how email in its current form may be impossible to kill. It'll be interesting to see if Inbox's approach -- transforming the venerable old standard from the inside out -- will be any more fruitful.

This story, "Inbox to app developers: Disrupt our email -- please!," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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