AMP for email is a terrible idea

Google just announced a plan to “modernize” email, allowing “engaging, interactive, and actionable email experiences.” Does that sound like a terrible idea to anyone else? It sure sounds like a terrible idea to me, and not only that, but an idea borne out of competitive pressure and existing leverage rather than user needs. Not good, Google. Send to trash.

See, email belongs to a special class. Nobody really likes it, but it’s the way nobody really likes sidewalks, or electrical outlets, or forks. It not that there’s something wrong with them. It’s that they’re mature, useful items that do exactly what they need to do. They’ve transcended the world of likes and dislikes.

As evidence consider the extreme rarity of anything other than normal versions of those things. Moving sidewalks, weirdo outlets, sporks — they only exist in extreme niches like airports and lunchables. The originals have remained unchanged for as long as millennia for a good reason.

Email too is simple. It’s a known quantity in practically every company, household, and device. The implementation has changed over the decades, but the basic idea has remained the same since the very first email systems in the ’60s and ’70s, certainly since its widespread standardization in the ’90s and shift to web platforms in the ’00s. The parallels to snail mail are deliberate (it’s a payload with an address on it) and simplicity has always been part of its design (interoperability and privacy came later).

No company owns it. It works reliably and as intended on every platform, every operating system, every device. That’s a rarity today and a hell of a valuable one.

But the tech industry has never been one to let elegance, history, or interoperability stand in the way of profit (RIP Google Reader), so that’s not much of an argument. Still, I thought it worth saying.

More important are two things: the moat and the motive.

The moat is the one between communications and applications. Communications say things, and applications interact with things. There are crossover areas, but something like email is designed and overwhelmingly used to say things, while websites and apps are overwhelmingly designed and used to interact with things.

It’s fundamentally useful to have a divide here the way it’s useful to have a divide between a book about fire and a book of matches.

Emails are static because messages are meant to be static. The entire concept of communication via the internet is based around the telegraphic model of exchanging one-way packets with static payloads, the way the entire concept of a fork is based around piercing a piece of food and allowing friction to hold it in place during transit.

The moat between communication and action is important because it makes it very clear what certain tools are capable of, which in turn lets them be trusted and used properly.

We know that all an email can ever do is say something to you (tracking pixels and read receipts notwithstanding). It doesn’t download anything on its own, it doesn’t run any apps or scripts, attachments are discrete items, unless they’re images in the HTML, which is itself optional. Ultimately the whole package is always just going to be a big , static chunk of text sent to you, with the occasional file riding shotgun. Open it a year or ten from now and it’s the same email.

And that proscription goes both ways. No matter what you try to do with email, you can only ever say something with it — with another email.

If you want to do something, you leave the email behind and do it on the other side of the moat.

This is the great genius and curse of email, that all you can do is send messages back and forth. It’s not always the best option, but it’s rarely the worst. If it’s more complicated than that, you use something other than email: a chat app, a video call, a file host. These useful items are often located adjacent to email, sometimes closely integrated, but they’re never actually part of it. This is a good thing. The closest you get is little things like adding something automatically to your calendar or scraping flight info from an itinerary. Ultimately it’s still just reading something.

What Google wants to do is bridge that moat, essentially to allow applications to run inside emails, limited ones to be sure, but by definition the kind of thing that belongs on the other side of the moat.

Why do this? Are we running out of tabs? Were people complaining that clicking “yes” on an RSVP email took them to the invitation site? Were they asking to have a video chat window open inside the email with the link? No. No one cares. No one is being inconvenienced by this aspect of email (inbox overload is a different problem), and no one will gain anything by changing it.

Well, almost no one. Which brings us to the motive.

AMP is, to begin with, Google exerting its market power to extend its control over others’ content. Facebook is doing it, so Google has to. Using its privileged position as the means through which people find a great deal of content, Google is attempting to make it so that the content itself must also be part of a system it has defined.

“AMP started as an effort to help publishers, but as its capabilities have expanded over time, it’s now one of the best ways to build rich webpages,” it writes in the blog post announcing the AMP for Gmail test. No, it isn’t. AMP is a way to adapt and deliver, on Google’s terms, real webpages built with real tools.

The excuse that the mobile web isn’t fast enough is threadbare, and the solution of a special Google-designed sub-web transparently self-serving. It’s like someone who sells bottled water telling you your tap runs too slow.

AMP for email is just an extension of that principle. People leave Gmail all the time to go to airline webpages, online shops, social media, and other places. Places that have created their own user environments, with their own analytics, their own processes that may or may not be beneficial or even visible to Google. Can’t have that!

But if these everyday tasks take place inside Gmail, Google exerts control over the intimate details, defining what other companies can and can’t do inside the email system — rather than using the natural limitations of email, which I hasten to reiterate are a feature, not a bug.

And as if that play wasn’t enough, the other one is as baldly avaricious as anything the company has ever done. Dynamic content in emails. Where have I heard that one before? That’s right: it’s Google’s entire business model for offering a free email service. Ads.

What is the vast majority of “live” content on the web, stuff that needs to call home and update itself? Not articles like this one, or videos or songs — those are just resources you request. Not chats or emails. Cloud-based productivity tools like shared documents, sure, granted. But the rest — and we’re talking like 99.9 percent here — is ads.

Ads and trackers that adapt themselves to the content around them, the data they know about the viewer, and the latest pricing or promotions. That’s how Google wants to “modernize” your inbox.

Does “engaging, interactive, and actionable email experiences” ring a little different now?

Don’t use this. Don’t encourage it. AMP and other initiatives like it are already a blight on the web, and they will be equally bad for email.

Featured Image: HeiroGraphic/Shutterstock

Google wants to use AMP to make email more interactive


Google’s AMP format has always been about making mobile pages render faster. But Google is now taking it beyond posts, recipes and how-to articles. First, the company launched the new AMP story format earlier today and now it’s also announcing a preview of AMP for Email.

At first, that may seem like an odd combination, especially given that few people complain about how slowly their emails render (they are mostly text, after all). Google argues that AMP is the right format to modernize email, though. “Many people rely on email for information about flights, events, news, purchases and beyond—more than 270 billion emails are sent each day,” Gmail product manager Aarash Sahney writes today. “With AMP for Email, it’s easy for information in email messages to be dynamic, up-to-date and actionable.”

Using AMP for Email, developers will be able to add an interactive calendar to your email, for example, so you don’t have to go through five rounds of back-and-forth messages to find a meeting time. Similarly, a message from your airline could show you up-to-date flight information or a marketer could send you a survey that you can fill out right in your inbox without having to go to another site.

Over the years, Google has launched numerous projects to modernize email. Back in 2013, for example, it launched customizable action buttons in Gmail. For the most part, though, emails haven’t really changed and every new format can only succeed if enough of Google’s competitors support it.

For now, AMP for Email is only available to developers who request preview access. The plan is to roll support out to Gmail later this year.

Google wants to use AMP to make email more interactive


Google’s AMP format has always been about making mobile pages render faster. But Google is now taking it beyond posts, recipes and how-to articles. First, the company launched the new AMP story format earlier today and now it’s also announcing a preview of AMP for Email.

At first, that may seem like an odd combination, especially given that few people complain about how slowly their emails render (they are mostly text, after all). Google argues that AMP is the right format to modernize email, though. “Many people rely on email for information about flights, events, news, purchases and beyond—more than 270 billion emails are sent each day,” Gmail product manager Aarash Sahney writes today. “With AMP for Email, it’s easy for information in email messages to be dynamic, up-to-date and actionable.”

Using AMP for Email, developers will be able to add an interactive calendar to your email, for example, so you don’t have to go through five rounds of back-and-forth messages to find a meeting time. Similarly, a message from your airline could show you up-to-date flight information or a marketer could send you a survey that you can fill out right in your inbox without having to go to another site.

Over the years, Google has launched numerous projects to modernize email. Back in 2013, for example, it launched customizable action buttons in Gmail. For the most part, though, emails haven’t really changed and every new format can only succeed if enough of Google’s competitors support it.

For now, AMP for Email is only available to developers who request preview access. The plan is to roll support out to Gmail later this year.

Google wants to use AMP to make email more interactive


Google’s AMP format has always been about making mobile pages render faster. But Google is now taking it beyond posts, recipes and how-to articles. First, the company launched the new AMP story format earlier today and now it’s also announcing a preview of AMP for Email.

At first, that may seem like an odd combination, especially given that few people complain about how slowly their emails render (they are mostly text, after all). Google argues that AMP is the right format to modernize email, though. “Many people rely on email for information about flights, events, news, purchases and beyond—more than 270 billion emails are sent each day,” Gmail product manager Aarash Sahney writes today. “With AMP for Email, it’s easy for information in email messages to be dynamic, up-to-date and actionable.”

Using AMP for Email, developers will be able to add an interactive calendar to your email, for example, so you don’t have to go through five rounds of back-and-forth messages to find a meeting time. Similarly, a message from your airline could show you up-to-date flight information or a marketer could send you a survey that you can fill out right in your inbox without having to go to another site.

Over the years, Google has launched numerous projects to modernize email. Back in 2013, for example, it launched customizable action buttons in Gmail. For the most part, though, emails haven’t really changed and every new format can only succeed if enough of Google’s competitors support it.

For now, AMP for Email is only available to developers who request preview access. The plan is to roll support out to Gmail later this year.

Google takes AMP beyond basic posts with its new story format


For the most part, Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages project was about what its name implies: accelerating mobile pages. Unsurprisingly, that mostly meant quickly loading and rendering existing articles on news sites, recipes and other relatively text-heavy content. With that part of AMP being quite successful (if not always beloved) now, Google is looking to take AMP beyond these basic stories. At its AMP Conf in Amsterdam, the company today announced the launch of the AMP story format.

The overall idea here isn’t all that different from the stories format you are probably already familiar with from the likes of Instagram and Snapchat. This new format allows publishers to build image-, video- and animation-heavy stories for mobile that you can easily swipe through. “It’s a mobile-focused format for creating visually rich stories,” as Google’s product manager for the AMP project Rudy Galfi called it when I talked to him last week. “It swings the doors open to create visually interesting stories.”To launch this format, Google partnered with CNN, Conde Nast, Hearst, Mashable, Meredith, Mic, Vox Media and The Washington Post. Like all of AMP, this is an open-source project and publishers can extend it as needed.

The idea here is to start surfacing AMP stories in Google’s search results over time. For now, though, this is only a preview that is meant to give developers and publishers time to support this new format.

Indeed, the first thing publishers will likely notice, though, is that there’s no tooling yet for building AMP stories. To some degree, that was also the case when Google first showed AMP for regular posts, though developers quickly wrote plugins for all of the popular CMS systems to support it. “Publishers that have been working with AMP stories managed to build fairly easy integrations with their existing CMS systems,” Galfi told us.

Even once tooling is available, though, publishers will have to create AMP stories from scratch. They can’t just easily recycle an existing post, slap on an image and call it a day. The success of the AMP story format, then, is going to be about making the right tools available for building these stories without adding overhead of developers, who are not necessarily all going to be happy about the fact that Google is launching yet another format that it may or may not support in the future.

It’s also still unclear how Google will surface these stories in search and how publishers can ensure that they’ll be included here. Because these AMP stories live separate from regular posts, Google will likely give publishers another means of pinging it when new stories go live.

For now, if you want to try an AMP story, head here and search for one by the launch partners. You’ll find AMP stories under the new “Visual Stories from” header in the search results.

While I’m not sure if publishers will fully embrace this format, I have to admit that the existing AMP stories I looked at made for a nice diversion. The Washington Post used the format to experiment with a timeline of North Korea’s participation in the Olympics, for example. Vox, unsurprisingly, used it for explainers, among other things, and Mashable probably went further than most by using video, sound and animations across most of its stories.