What does the new Gmail API mean for Internet standards?

Google quietly released a new set of Gmail APIs today, giving developers access to some of the building blocks of its popular Gmail protocols. But the message to developers was clear: Don't even think about building your own client.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor on

While Google was dazzling an audience of developers today with shiny new hardware, yet another stab at Internet TV, and even a giveaway made from cardboard, another more substantial change was happening behind the scenes.

In a post at the Google Apps Developer Blog, Gmail Technical Lead Eric DeFriez introduced a new API for Gmail, giving developers a set of tools to tap into Gmail accounts and, in the process, fanning fears that some venerable Internet email standards might be riding off into the sunset.

The new API offers fine-grained access to a Gmail user's account, allowing an app developer to make simple HTTPS calls and get responses in a variety of formats, with OAuth 2.0 authorizing access behind the scenes.

The new Gmail API includes tools that allow programmatic access to messages and labels, so that a web-based app can send or delete a message and change the labels on existing messages.

In theory, an app developer could build a complete (albeit simple) Gmail client using the new API. But that use case is frowned upon in the introduction to the Gmail API, which sternly warns that "the Gmail API should not be used to replace IMAP for full-fledged email client access."

Instead, the developers' guidelines suggest, the new API should be used for new apps that do simpler tasks, such as:

  • Read-only mail extraction, indexing, and backup
  • Label management (add/remove labels)
  • Automated or programmatic message sending

Now, offering APIs to developers to get to users' email accounts isn't a new feature. Microsoft Office announced a similar API (one that does a lot more, actually) last March.

The new move by Google offers a very limited entrée into Gmail accounts, keeping the full Gmail API under lock and key as a proprietary weapon for Google's own apps. And on platforms where it chooses not to deliver an app, most notably Windows 8.x and Windows Phone, Gmail users get a substandard experience.

As an email standard, IMAP is a horrible mess, and moving away from reliance on IMAP for interoperability is probably in the better interests of everyone who uses the Internet. But moving to a completely proprietary standard as Google is doing with Gmail is problematic as well.

Microsoft's server-side email solutions all support Exchange ActiveSync, which can be readily licensed by software developers, with Microsoft offering a long-term commitment to the standard. Gmail is Google's mail protocol, controlled and administered by Google and subject to change at its whims.

As of today, Google invests considerably in Gmail clients for iOS and Android, but Windows users are left mostly to web-based solutions. For enterprise customers that connect to Google Apps accounts (which use the same protocols as free Gmail accounts), most of the alternatives are messy, to say the least.

Today's announcements are good news for anyone who lives in an all-Android environment, and the outcome will probably be OK for iOS users as well, because of the investment that Google makes in iOS apps.

It's unlikely that Google will drop support for IMAP as some have suggested, at least in the near term. Too many business clients count on that base-level support. But you can count on Google leaving IMAP support far behind as the rest of the platform moves on.


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