No, The New Gmail API Is Not Killing IMAP

Yesterday, at Google’s I/O developer conference, the company announced a new way for developers to build apps that integrate with Gmail, via its brand-new Gmail API. Designed to allow programmatic access to messages, threads, labels and drafts, the API was initially misunderstood by some as Google’s attempt to “kill off IMAP,” an older email protocol that offers email access, retrieval and storage.

That confusion seemed to come about largely because of the wording in one highly trafficked Wall St. Journal article, which originally said that the new API would “replace IMAP, a common but complex way for applications to communicate with most email services.” (The article has since been updated with new language that says “instead of” as opposed to “replace.”)

Google’s developer’s documentation also backs this up: the new Gmail API will not be killing off IMAP  – at least, not yet – but it will make Gmail application development easier.

The Gmail API does not offer full inbox access for all operations, explains Google in a blog post detailing the API’s new features; it’s about giving fine-grained control to applications which don’t need “full-fledged email client access,” as the developer documentation states.

Instead, the API would work well for apps that need to scan through your inbox, looking for e-receipts, itineraries or order confirmations; those that let you schedule email to be sent later; CRM applications; email “snooze” buttons; and more. In these cases where full inbox access is not required, the Gmail API would be quicker than using IMAP to perform a search or find a particular email thread.

And while the Gmail API means Google is inviting developers to build ever more applications that dig into your most private social network – that of your email inbox – it’s also doing so in a way that actually better respects the sensitivity of that data.

Now, if a user wants to authorize an app that only performs one function, like sending mail on the user’s behalf, but not retrieving incoming messages, the Gmail API could allow for this, where before that same app built with IMAP would mean the developer would have to access all of your emails just to get their app to work.

However, the Gmail API stops short of enabling the lineup of mobile email clients, like Accompli, CloudMagic, Boxer or Gusto, for example. Those apps will still need to work with the older protocols like IMAP and SMTP, at least until Google decides to expand the Gmail API further to include all the functionality of IMAP, if the company ever chooses to go that route.

The Gmail API is now in beta, as Google solicits developer feedback before a wider launch.