Google Inbox: First Impressions

I’ve been using Google’s Inbox for the past couple months — almost exclusively, in fact — since getting my invitation, and my initial impression is that at this point it is pretty good for reading email but it has holes, particularly for anything beyond basic reading, replying, and deleting email.

I’ve been using Google’s Inbox for the past couple months — almost exclusively, in fact — since getting my invitation, and my initial impression is that at this point it is pretty good for reading email but it currently has holes.

The most significant deficiency for me seems like a huge hole for anyone who does anything other than read and delete email: no access to contacts. None. No way to look for contacts or their information. No way to add addresses and information from email to contacts. No way to create contacts. (I have not tried using it with address lists.) It does use contacts to help address emails but as best I can tell, that’s the extent of its use of contacts. This, so far, is the one thing that has forced me several times to go back to Gmail when I needed to either look up something about a contact or create a new contact.

I like the ability to snooze emails (but I think Dropbox’s Mailbox does it better), and I like the ability to pin emails with “remember to…” annotations. Most of the normal Gmail keyboard interactions — aside from labeling, more on this below — for archiving, deleting, marking as spam, etc., work. I like that Inbox works well on my Android phone and tablet (both running different versions on Android, neither of which is Lollipop — something I can’t do with Mailbox).

The other significant hole is that Gmail’s keyboard interface for labeling emails (yes, I’m a labeler) is not supported. This would be a more significant gap for me at work, where I often apply multiple labels to an individual email and where I am almost exclusively on a computer (as opposed to phone or tablet), but even in my personal email I miss the easy/quick keyboard-driven way of tagging messages. Inbox’s current UI makes it difficult (maybe impossible) to apply multiple labels to a message, and is more based on the “messages in folders” metaphor.

I’m still hoping Inbox sees some significant evolution in the near future. Without that evolution, I’m likely to abandon it and go back to Gmail. I would be giving up the annotated pinning and message snoozing, but would still have better-than-just-decent interfaces on phone and tablet, integration with contacts, and full keyboard interaction support when at a computer.

Setting Up a Fake SMTP Server

I finally got around to setting up a simple “fake” SMTP server on a development system, making it simple and to develop and test email generation logic in Web applications.

On my team’s various development boxes (which are almost always laptops and therefore not always connected to our corporate intranet and sometime not on any network), we have typically configured our ColdFusion and Railo application servers to use our internal mail servers. Many of our Web applications send user-composed, automated, or process-based email messages, in addition to security-related event notifications. We’ve been bitten a couple of times in developing this mail-related logic, with messages being generated and sent to real system users from our development servers which, as you can imagine, has significant potential for generating concern and/or confusion on the users’ part. This hasn’t happened recently, in part because we are collectively more careful and in part based on our approach to how email gets addressed depending on whether the app is running on a development, testing, or production server.

I’ve long believed that a safer approach would be to configure our non-production servers to use something other than a “real” mail server. I’m in the process of standing up a new development system for myself, and decided I was going to poke at this a bit. For this first foray, I wanted something

  • simple to set up, configure, start, and stop
  • free
  • preferably available cross-platform (my team develops on Mac OS, Linux, and Windows systems based on developer preference for platform)
  • completely local (because of the need to be able to run without being on a network)

A solution would need to support SMTP, as both the ColdFusion and Railo application servers are configured to talk to an SMTP server. Anything beyond that set of basic requirements would be a bonus.

After a bit of looking, I decided to use FakeSMTP. It ticks all of the above boxes, and is implemented as a single Java JAR compatible with Java 1.6 and above. It has a simple UI for watching activity and  “outbound” mail handed to it, and can easily be configured to store transmitted mail messages to disk as .eml files for review (making developing email-related content fairly straightforward).

I use a bash shell script to start and stop my Tomcat instances for ColdFusion and Railo, so I added logic to that script to optionally start and stop my local mail server, as follows (wrapped here only for presentation):

# Start our fake SMTP server:
if [ "${3}" = "mail" ]; then
  java -jar ~/opt/fakesmtp/fakesmtp-1.13.jar -s -b -p 2525 \
    -o ~/opt/fakesmtp/out/ -a \
    >> ~/opt/fakesmtp/logs/fakesmtp-`date +%Y%m%d`.log &


# Stop our fake SMTP server:
if [ "${3}" = "mail" ]; then
  kill `ps -a > /tmp/ps.out && grep -i fakesmtp /tmp/ps.out | \
    cut -f 2 -d ' ' -`

The start logic runs the mail server in the background (as I really don’t intend to use the UI), listening on address and port 2525 (to avoid needing to run with elevated privileges on the default SMTP port of 25). It dumps mail messages to a folder for review, and logging server activity to a log file with a date-based name. The stop logic finds the mail server process and kills it.

I’ve tested it with both ColdFusion and Railo application servers, and it works. I will probably add some shutdown-related logic to do a bit of cleanup to make sure neither the log files or the saved email files get out of control.

Final thought: If it weren’t for my desire to be able to run completely standalone at times where I either do not have access to or do not want to use a network connection, I probably would have gone with something like Debug Mail. I have not used it, but it looks excellent. Given Railo’s ability to configure multiple mail servers, I may still play with it a bit as part of my solution.