Google's Sparrow Acquisition Is Not a Death Knell For a "Beautiful" Gmail Experience

Sparrow + Google

Released on the Mac App Store on February 9, 2011, Sparrow has today been acquired by Google. ONE37 received an official statement from a Google spokesperson regarding the acquisition:

The Sparrow team has always put their users first by focusing on building a seamlessly simple and intuitive interface for their email client. We look forward to bringing them aboard the Gmail team, where they’ll be working on new projects.

Despite rampant uproar as to the sanctity of the extraordinarily popular email client, initial indications suggest that the Sparrow experience is far from buried. Although the Sparrow brand may well have been shuttered and doomed to stagnation, Dominique Leca and his cohorts have evidently been tasked with the revitalization of Google’s flagging mobile app presence in a very meaningful manner. Regardless of Twitter-driven hyperbole, indications from sources at Google point toward the Google-branded resurrection of Sparrow’s experiential essence from the ashes of its once-great OS X and iOS clients.

Having built Sparrow upon the foundation of establishing an unquestionably good Gmail experience for OS X, Sparrow’s roots clearly reside within the bounds of Google’s domain. For well over a year, Mac users have enjoyed the delightfully minimalist experience tendered by Sparrow for OS X and, more recently, iOS users have been graced with an equally polished experienced.

Sparrow’s successes, of course, lie in famously stark contrast to that of Google’s own software offerings. Gmail for iOS is frequently remembered for its laughable entry into the iOS App Store in late 2011. Boasting a web-view driven interface, an experience riddled with inconsistencies and faults, and a distinct lack of fluency, Google’s offering remains the laughing stock of the broader iOS development community. Despite being forced into foregoing push notifications, Sparrow for iPhone, on the other hand, continues to exist as a point of poignant embarrassment for Google, insofar as its internal team has shown a woeful lack of proficiency in improving its mobile presence.

Given Apple’s well-documented endeavors to subtract Google from the iOS equation, it is more important than ever for Google to construct and establish a well-engrained experience for iOS users. As Google Maps edge closer to their exit from iOS, Google is tasked with out-doing Apple on its own grounds. With Sparrow’s many successes in mind, an acqui-hire scenario is steeped in the tenets of logic, rationality, and forward-thinking planning.

Thus, contrary to the skepticism bounding across Twitter, indications from Mountain View point toward a unique opportunity for cooperation and introspective improvement. Revitalizing Google’s mobile presence is likely a priority for the search giant, and Dominique and his team have proven — in an awfully embarrassing manner — that they are more than capable of successfully carrying out such a lofty goal. As is indicated by the banner image above Dominique’s official letter to Sparrow users, the equation at hand here is simply “Sparrow + Google,” and nothing more than that.

Given Google’s far-reaching capabilities, funds, and historical penchant for innovation, I cannot help but view this acquisition as a potential medium through which Sparrow’s initial goal might be achieved. Sporting direct access to Google servers, Sparrow will competently be able to leverage push notifications, deeper-integration, and potentially novel takes on the traditional Gmail experience. Perhaps the beloved Sparrow brand has been cast aside, but that is certainly not to say that the affable spirit of the app and its team cannot protrude through the vast facade of Google’s Gmail division.

Evidently purchased for somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million, Google may well have attained a bargain deal for a remarkable development team. Moreover, for $25 million, Google has successfully established a solid, proven inroad into the competitive world of iOS and Mac software. Despite any emotionally defaulted reactions on Twitter, I cannot help but feel somewhat optimistic for what the future may hold for Dominique, his team, and the Sparrow experience that we have all come to know and appreciate.

Sparrow for iPhone: A Review

Since the introduction of the App Store, few developers have truly dared to undermine the relevance and resident dominance of Apple's primary stock apps. Turning the iPhone on for the first time, Phone, Mail, Safari, and Music provide for a colorful welcome from the proverbial glass shelf at the base of the screen. This shelf, for Apple, represents a higher tier of app - the irreplaceable core of the iPhone experience. As such, not for a lack of repeated attempts, few developers have come close to usurping such a position. Whether by rejection or by poor attempt, these four apps have retained a veritable stranglehold upon the core functionality of the iPhone. Today, however, the dominance of Mail comes into question: Sparrow for iPhone has been released.

Built upon the foundational design tenets established by Sparrow for Mac, Sparrow for iPhone endeavors to undermine the increasing complexity of email. Sparrow for Mac, although somewhat shaky in its early iterations, has blossomed into a true email behemoth beneath an affable and approachable UI. CloudApp and Facebook integration, coupled with powerful functionality, characterize an experience unhindered by the nightmarish features typical of the token email interface. Sparrow for Mac has, hyperbole aside, entirely redefined the manner in which I contend with the tentacled beast that is my perpetually growing email inbox.

Thus, Sparrow's arrival in the iOS ecosystem is a welcome sight. Mail.app, although competent, has been utterly bereft of significant overhaul since the inception of iOS. Accordingly, the Google experience is fundamentally lacking, alternating between accounts is jarring, and threaded conversations are somewhat unintuitive. Sparrow, on the other hand, is a beauty to behold. 

Boasting a panel-driven layout akin to Facebook and Path, Sparrow for iPhone facilitates an environment unencumbered by granular settings, folders, and detail unless specifically called upon. Even then, the experience is a delight. Gesturally driving oneself through panels, emails, and even into the very depths of various accounts is truly fluid, simple, and intuitive. Unlike Mail.app, seeking out an older email is no longer an exercise in frustrating futility, archiving email is no longer mislabeled as a deletion (for Google Sync), and Facebook-integrated contacts are a pleasure to behold when addressing your messages.

Simply put, for much of what Mail.app does competently, Sparrow accomplishes brilliantly.

As the first iteration, however, Sparrow does have its fair helping of flaws. Most notably is the lack of push notifications. This exclusion, as Mr. Dominique Leca highlighted for me this morning, is not for a lack of trying. Under the current governing rules of the App Store, good security is a practical impossibility for Sparrow and, as a third party client, such an exclusion would spell disaster for the app. Accordingly, Sparrow's awareness of new emails is confined to when you open the app to check.

For many - despite the refreshingly mature accountability and reasoning beneath the decision - such an exclusion is likely (and unfortunately) a deal breaker. Having the capability to glance at the lock screen during a meeting or a dinner for a high-level overview of email is beneficial for many and, despite the increasing disdain felt for those incessant email vibrations, it allows the end-user to remain up-to-date and in touch with their working and personal lives. As a competitor for Mail.app's position, the lack of push is the largest remaining hurdle for Sparrow.

A second hurdle - although significantly less impactful for the vast majority - is the lack of Exchange compatibility. As the iPhone is increasingly adopted as the corporate smartphone of choice, Mail.app becomes further entrenched as the de facto mail client for the vast majority of users. Competent calendar and email management is of the utmost importance for the average corporate user - myself included - and Sparrow simply cannot contend in such an arena.

Perhaps such a statement sounds resoundingly negative, but that is certainly not my intent. In many ways, as a corporate user, Sparrow for iPhone is a truly blessed gift. Having transferred my Google accounts into Sparrow, I have successfully separated personal from corporate and I have likely regained an enormous amount of battery. Removing Google accounts set under Google Sync (Exchange) parameters from Settings relegates the unnecessary nagging of my personal accounts to Sparrow - an environment built upon the ideal of the personal experience. From within Sparrow, contending with my Google accounts - both personal and for ONE37 - reserves a warm and well-designed interface for a warmer environment than that of my corporate Exchange account.

Meanwhile, with Sparrow now nestled into my dock, Mail.app has now been shifted to my second home screen. From here, corporate email assumes its well-deserved space for ninety percent of my day - out of the way.

Looking to the future, there is plenty to feel optimistic about. Considering the introductory version of the app is already such a feature-packed rival to Mail.app, its dedicated progression promises to be intriguing indeed. On the topic of the future, given the widespread hype and chatter surrounding the device, I asked Mr. Leca about the likelihood of Sparrow for iPad in future. The answer was simple and unrevealing, "No plans yet."

Despite the disappointing lack of push, Sparrow is a phenomenal app and, moreover, an unbelievable first attempt. Apps that have been on the App Store for years struggle to achieve such a level of fluidity. Facilitating a delightful email experience is no small task and, given Sparrow for Mac's markedly accomplished evolution, I imagine the app is only going to improve from here. The app immediately gained a position of prominence in my workflow and, regardless of its flaws, Sparrow for iPhone is unquestionably one of the most promising apps I've had the pleasure of working with in quite some time.

Buy Sparrow for iPhone and give it a fair chance, sign the pseudo-petition for Apple to allow their secure push solution, and read Federico Viticci's review for further detail regarding the app.

Sparrow for iPhone is available here.

The Verge Interviews Dom Leca, Sparrow Co-Founder

In an interview with The Verge, Dom Leca, co-founder of Sparrow, sheds some light on his thoughts regarding development, email, literature, and design. Here's a particularly great excerpt from the interview:

Email is declared dead a few times a year. Why the staying power? Does it need to evolve?

How did you apply for your job? How do you negotiate a deal? How do you review your employee work? What tool are you using when you're sending message to your loved ones? SMS, Facebook messages, What's app, Kik are all great new means of communication but mail still has its own territory. Email definitely needs to evolve. Sparrow 1.x is an attempt to marginally change habits.

I am an enormous (and outspoken) proponent of what Dom and Hoa have envisioned in Sparrow, and I can't wait to see what new features Sparrow 2.0 holds (not to mention Sparrow for iOS).

Leca's perception of Sparrow as an agent of progressive change for email is ambitious, admirable, but most importantly, achievable. The inroads Leca and his team have made are fantastic, and if they remain on their current path, Sparrow is likely set to become one of the most memorable and influential apps in the Mac App Store (and elsewhere).

Sparrow For iPhone 61 Percent Complete

Yesterday, Sparrow published a placeholder for their highly anticipated Sparrow for iPhone app.

After the drastic failure of Google's official Gmail offering, I can say that I am unequivocally thrilled at the prospect of a compelling Gmail interface for iOS. Although there are competitors out there already, Sparrow's Mac app, in my opinion, was one of the best Mac apps of 2011, and if that's anything to go by, their iOS app should be something to behold.

It's somewhat unfair to have such high expectations, but I cannot shake my enthusiasm. I can't wait to see what they've produced.