Will Apple ever work on its iCloud web mail?

Originally published on Mac O’Clock

An ARM-based MacBook, an Apple Watch that tracks your sleep and your hand washing. There are tentative signs that Apple is starting to innovate again. After a decade of incremental updates to the same range of MacBooks, iPhones and iPads, last month’s WWDC conference may well have been the start of a new era for the company. However, my checklist for the conference was only populated with one item. And I was left disappointed.

It’s email. That pesky, forgotten iCloud web app for email.

Apple’s web apps were launched in 2011 following iCloud’s regeneration from the MobileMe service and enabled anyone with an iCloud account to access its related services via iCloud.com, even without an Apple device.

At the time, it was great. I was still at school in a rural area with very little 3G coverage and very restrictive wifi. I was regularly using an on-campus Windows PC to access my iCloud email. I could open the browser and read and draft emails to my heart’s content on an Apple-designed interface. It was a great extension to the Apple ecosystem and was a genuine reason for using iCloud as my main email client over Gmail. That early magic has long since passed.

The functionality of the web apps, particularly the Mail app, has barely changed since 2011. Once the novelty of having access to an iOS-like dashboard on some ancient Windows XP-clad Dell had passed, the much uglier features came to the fore. Even back then, having a pop out window to draft an email seemed cumbersome when Facebook and Google were integrating pretty basic pop up tabs for messaging and drafting emails respectively. The tweaks that Apple have added to the Mail app have been welcome. This includes a quick Unsubscribe and an Unread filter button, but these features now seem like bare minimums for an email client.

The big players in web email clients, Gmail and Outlook, continue to improve their browser-based offerings. Both have added smart or ‘focused’ inbox filtering that sort your emails for you as well as powerful integrations with Calendar apps. Google have also announced an overhaul of Gmail that will better align it with its Meet and Drive apps. Apple has not yet found the time to fully integrate iCloud Mail with its existing Calendar, Drive and FaceTime services that all complement one another, especially in a world where more iCloud users than ever are working remotely.

As Owen Williams notes in his recent piece for OneZero, Apple has a strong track record, reinforced by the features it announced at WWDC, of ripping off its competitors but doing a better job of them. On this basis, the extent to which iCloud’s web apps lag behind its browser based friends at Google and Microsoft is astounding.

The addition of the Photos app to iCloud.com and its more intuitive design in comparison to other iCloud web apps is perhaps a sign that more improvements are coming, but competitors won’t wait around for them. In addition to improvements to Gmail and Outlook, there are a plethora of start-ups claiming to be ‘reinventing email’ for the modern era. Edison’s OnMail, announced in April, will launch this summer with a full browser based option and with a focus on Apple’s new found passion: privacy. The already launched paid options — Hey, Newton and Superhuman — while standalone apps, underline the staleness of Apple’s email offering with some beautiful UI design and built in tools to improve the speed with which you can get in and out of your email.

Until Apple decides to focus some attention on improving the iCloud experience across all of the platforms on which it is used, it will never be seen as a viable option for many when Google and Microsoft are so many strides ahead. But as we know, that could all change with another video presentation from Apple Park.

With just under 11 months to go until the next WWDC, this is my callout to Cupertino to show iCloud some love and reinvigorate email for Apple users.