Eight reasons we still need an iPhone Gmail app

Gmail on Safari just got better, but it's a far cry from what could be built into a native version. We explore what's possible with upcoming additions to the iPhone's SDK.

Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Tuesday's release of a much-improved Web client for Gmail on the iPhone and Android handsets was nice, but it's still got me salivating at the idea of a native application for the iPhone. Over the last year we've hounded the Gmail team on whether one was on the way, and the answer is--in typical Google fashion, that there will be no discussion of products that have not been announced.

But that doesn't mean one isn't in the works.

So let's take a look at what a native Gmail application could give us over what Apple is currently offering and is set to release in the upcoming 3.0 firmware .

1. Push delivery/Push notifications
Gmail for Android does something no other client of Gmail does: push notifications. This means that the second you get a message it lets you know with a pop-up. The fastest you can set the iPhone's Mail application to refresh Gmail is every 15 minutes. So could a native iPhone application do the same thing as Gmail for Android? Probably.

An official Google spokesperson told us that no other platform has this push service (including desktop clients), and the other official Gmail native apps simply auto-refresh every few minutes. With the upcoming firmware 3.0, Google could offer the push notifications of new messages through Apple's push data stream either in the form of a badge that updates on the app's icon, or with a small preview that pops up with the first line or two of the message.

2. Offline/Gears
The new version of Gmail for Android has offline reading and composing, meaning you can go through your mail and get work done even when you don't have a connection. While the iPhone's Mail app lets you read, save, and compose messages, it doesn't download a big chunk of your in-box or all of the attachments that come with it, which means you can be out of luck if you can't get online to view a work document or spreadsheet. Which brings us to...

3. Attachment handling
The attachment viewing of Gmail on the desktop can be an absolute joy. PDFs, PowerPoint presentations and PDFs can be viewed in an HTML viewer that cuts down on the start-up time and the requirement for any special software. While the iPhone can natively view these, it doesn't include search or the option to save the file locally. A local app could offer both.

Likewise, when composing an e-mail in the native Mail app, adding attachments is limited to photos, which with the upcoming firmware is much simpler with systemwide copy and paste. However, if you're using the Web client, it's incapable of accessing your local files, which means you're stuck using the native app if you want to add or take a quick photo as an attachment.

4. Smarter archiving
Not all Gmail users archive their messages, probably because they don't understand what it does. Archiving takes a message out of your in-box while keeping it in your account, letting you search for it later. It's a handy feature, yet the iPhone native mail client gives the impression that we're deleting messages we don't want to see in our in-box, something which goes against the very principle of having 7GB of mail storage.

If you've set up Gmail using the iPhone's Gmail setup wizard you can in fact archive messages by selecting them and moving them to your "All Mail" folder. Alternately, for native app users who have set up Gmail using the special IMAP instructions the delete function does not actually delete the message but archives it. Confused? A native Gmail app might make a better differentiation between the two, and let you control what you want deleted and archived from the get-go.

Gmail's task list

5. A standalone task list
Gmail's task list is not the most full-featured to-do list app out there, but it's simple and handy. Having it as part of a native app would let you access it and make edits when offline. Google could even give users the option to create hard due dates for each item, which could be synced up to your phone's calendar and give you a buzz when they had to be done.

6. Combined contact look-up
Here's a problem: I have one contact list on my phone and another on Gmail. Sure Google has an official solution that will sync up both and combine them into one massive contact list, but what if I want to keep the two separated to keep my iPhone's phonebook a little smaller?

A native application would help sort that out by making use of the contacts I have on my phone and giving quick auto-complete-as-you-type suggestions for people on my Gmail contact list. Right now, typing addresses from the native iPhone will only bring up auto-complete suggestions if that person is on my contact list, or if I've recently sent them a message.

7. Built-in chat
Chat has become a big part of Gmail's desktop version, yet on the iPhone it's relegated to a finger-friendly browser version that will sign you off when you close your browser or switch tabs. That's not a good solution. Why not build it into a native version of Gmail on the phone like there is on Android?

Apple

8. GPS and location awareness
Location is becoming an increasingly important part of mobile apps, and Gmail is no different. When Google puts advertising into the mobile version of Gmail you can bet there's going to be a play on location. Contextual information from inside of your e-mails is one facet, but if Google can figure out where you are and offer something more targeted, you can bet it will.

More importantly, it will open things up for some fun extras, like being able to announce your location in your signature. This is a feature that's available in the desktop version, but would be a whole lot more useful when your messages are coming from a mobile phone.

These are just a few reasons the iPhone is long overdue for its own native Gmail app. If you've got any of your own, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Update: Made a clarification about archiving items in the native iPhone client.

About the author

Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.

 

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