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Miss Google Inbox? Simplify Gmail is reviving its ‘Bundles’

Diane Davis

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By the time Google’s Inbox app launched in 2014, the designer responsible for its vision knew it was destined for failure.

“It was kind of [a] dead man walking,” says Michael Leggett, a former Gmail design lead and the person who guided Inbox through its first four years of development.

Inbox, in case you don’t recall, was a daring reinvention of the tried-and-true email interface. Google initially described the effort as a “completely different type of inbox”—a “better way to get back to what matters.” It was technically still Gmail, mind you, but with a whole new interface and way of interacting that emphasized efficiency. Some of its concepts have since been integrated into Gmail itself, such as snoozing. But Inbox’s most transformative enhancements have remained vexingly out of reach ever since Google gave up on the service in 2019.

One Inbox element in particular has become the Holy Grail of email efficiency for former fans of the service: Its system of email delivery known as Bundles. Bundles grouped low-priority messages into clusters within your inbox and gave you intelligent tools to triage them quickly, efficiently, and on your own schedule.

Bundles, as they appeared in the original Inbox app circa 2014—as seen with the various clusters of emails (“Redfin,” “Updates,” “School,” “Promos,” and so on) within the main inbox interface.

And now, Bundles are coming back to life. They’ll soon be available within Gmail itself, bringing back a feature that Inbox aficionados lost long ago and users of garden-variety Gmail never had in the first place.

But here’s the kicker: Google itself isn’t the one giving us Bundles this go-round. Nope—it’s Michael Leggett, the original Inbox designer who’s now made it his mission to improve Google’s apps and services from the outside.

The secret? A simple-seeming browser extension called Simplify Gmail (which, not surprisingly, made the cut as one of Fast Company’s best productivity apps of 2021). Purely by being present in the background of your desktop browser, the software completely changes the look and feel of Gmail. It eliminates clutter and introduces a more Inbox-reminiscent, minimalist vibe while still staying true to the current Gmail structure. And it adds in a carefully curated lineup of genuinely useful features—everything from extra keyboard shortcuts to a true dark mode for your entire inbox.

The Gmail interface in its standard form, at top, and with Simplify’s enhancements present, below.

Now, none other than Bundles is about to become its latest bit of productivity boosting brilliance.

A revolution, reborn

Though Inbox was Leggett’s brainchild, he wasn’t still at Google when it debuted in 2014. He’d left the Inbox team in 2012 and moved on from Google soon after. He saw the writing on the wall when his full vision for Inbox got chopped down from its initial state and scaled back into the email-specific service that ultimately debuted.

Inbox was originally meant to be even more ambitious. It was, in Leggett’s eyes, a ‘revolutionary’ product.

Inbox, as it turns out, was originally meant to be even more ambitious. It was, in Leggett’s eyes, a “revolutionary” product—one that would have totally reimagined the way we interacted not only with email but also with practically every other Google productivity app.

It all started when Leggett and a colleague from the Gmail team decided to poke around in Google’s treasure trove of big-picture service usage data. They noticed what struck them as a telling trend: At that particular moment, Gmail was by far the company’s most popular and widely used service. After it came Google Talk—Google’s original cross-platform messaging platform, which was integrated directly into the Gmail website. Nothing else, as Leggett recalls it, came close to reaching the levels of adoption those two services were seeing.

“One of our working theories was that Talk is the only [Google service] that was built into Gmail. So what if we put all the apps into Gmail?” he says.

Today, ironically enough, Google has kind of come around to that way of thinking. The company rebranded its productivity suite to Workspace last year and has slowly but surely been bringing more and more of its apps into the inbox environment ever since.

At the time, though, the notion of adding other services into Gmail was downright wild. And the current state of Google’s Workspace setup still pales in comparison to the sweeping strategy of simplification Leggett and his teammates were cooking up at the time.

“The vision was really grand, really broad,” he says. “I was thinking, what’s the best Docs experience? What’s the best Calendar experience? What’s the best Photos experience within Gmail?”

In that original state, Inbox incorporated more than a dozen different data sources, ranging from the apps Leggett mentioned to entirely new elements designed to handle contacts, tasks, and bookmarks. Even the doomed Google Reader had a place in the service.

Eventually, though, Google’s top tier of management changed, as company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who had originally approved the Inbox project, scaled back their roles in day-to-day operations. So, too, did the company’s priorities and its thinking on the Inbox project. Leggett and his comrades were told to go back to the drawing board and eliminate almost everything except for Inbox’s email-specific elements. And that’s when Leggett knew it was as good as over.

“I couldn’t see how [something like that] could ever coexist with Gmail,” he says. “Either it becomes the future or it gets scrapped and you pull off pieces and try to bolt them onto Gmail.”

The latter, of course, is exactly what happened. But in a roundabout way, it led Leggett to a revelation that’d allow him to pick up right where he left off, albeit with a very different situation around him.

Google Inbox, by any other name

One thing you have to understand about Leggett is that he’s always been a guy who likes to optimize. He told me a story about how his wife asked him to handle the dishes one night while she put the kids to bed, and by the time she came back into the kitchen, he had taken everything out of the cabinets to formulate an entirely new organizational strategy—and washed precisely zero plates.

“I love to obsess about optimizing stuff and the little details,” he says. “If I move this one lever, bam! Massive impact, massive change.”

That same mindset (one Leggett suspects is at least somewhat connected to some OCD-like tendencies he’s had since he was a kid) led him to create his own custom browser extensions for fixing all the things that annoyed him about different online apps and services. And over time, he found more and more people were taking an interest in what he was doing.

“I always wondered—gosh, I like doing this. Could I get paid to do this?” he recalls.

The answer, as it turns out, was a resounding yes. Leggett launched his first version of Simplify Gmail in April 2019—exactly one day after Google pulled the plug on Inbox. That was no coincidence, as you can probably imagine, and the carefully considered timing worked better than Leggett ever expected: Within the first month, Simplify had exceeded 10,000 users. A couple months later, it surpassed the 100,000 mark.

After many months of expanding and fine-tuning the software, Leggett flipped the switch and started charging for Simplify—a modest two bucks a month, paid annually—this past summer.

And that leads us to now and the extension’s biggest expansion yet—the one that’ll bring Bundles back into the Gmail picture.

Unwrapping Bundles

Bundles in this current form looks and works more or less the same as it did in its original incarnation. And fair warning: When you first see the structure of your inbox transformed on such a foundational level, you might find the experience jarring. If you allow yourself to adjust to the change, though, the system really does have the potential to bring a whole new level of focus and efficiency to your daily email management.

Like lots of Google-incubated initiatives, Bundles was born out of data.

And amazingly, despite the fact that this new version of the system is being handled entirely by a browser extension, it seems every bit as smooth and native as the initial version did within Inbox. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, you’d just assume Google had added the feature directly into Gmail—which is true for all of Simplify’s modifications and the level of native-feeling polish they provide. In a way, it feels like Leggett is in a unique position to make this happen, given both his design sense and his rare intimate knowledge of Gmail’s inner workings (something he says helps him adjust the extension constantly to account for Google’s ongoing under-the-hood changes).

The simplest way to think about Bundles is as email categorization on steroids. But instead of focusing on the messages that are most important to you and trying to make those stand out, Bundles works on addressing the other end of the spectrum and aims to make lower-priority emails easier to manage.

“I said, instead of trying to rank the top 10% [of emails], let’s just group or bundle the bottom 80%,” Leggett explains.

Like lots of Google-incubated initiatives, Bundles was born out of data. While he was still working at Google, Leggett had one of the company’s quantitative researchers dig deep into anonymized statistics on how people were using Gmail labels. He found some surprisingly consistent patterns in the way most people organized their email. And that led to the creation of the main Bundles categories—Promos, Social, Updates, Finance, Purchases, Travel, Forums, and a general catch-all Low Priority designation.

Those were the areas of communication, Leggett realized, that needed to be reined in—that “bottom 80%” of emails that continuously floods your inbox and steals away your precious attention.

With Bundles, any such emails appear in clusters right within your main inbox view. They’re grouped together but still visible—not completely out of sight and out of mind, as they are with Gmail’s vaguely similar tabs system for grouping messages. And you can supplement them with your own custom Bundles categories specific to the types of emails you receive.

Bundles in Gmail, courtesy of the Simplify software—as seen with the “Promotions,” “Social,” and “News/Climate” clusters above.

“Not only is that great from a matter of making your inbox less overwhelming, it’s also great from a processing perspective,” Leggett says. “I open that up, and now I have 20 emails that are very similar, and I can process those in batch in ways I can’t do when they’re all intermixed in the inbox.”

Specifically, you can sweep away an entire Bundle of emails with a single click—leaving behind only those messages that are starred and thus require further attention. And in perhaps my favorite part of the system, you can configure certain Bundles to appear only on specific days or times—maybe having your social updates show up in a single cluster just once daily in the late afternoon, for instance, or setting your finance and purchase emails to show up only on Sundays, when you tend to pay your bills.

It’s a smart system that cuts down on constant distractions and sets the stage for more efficient triage. And it’ll be coming to Simplify’s Canary channel later this month for anyone who wants to test it out.

Leggett plans to work on bringing some other Inbox-inspired features into the mix soon as well. The former service’s method of integrating reminders and notes into emails is high on his agenda for contemplation, as are a variety of other features and optimizations inspired by the past but designed for the future.

“I’m not trying to recreate Inbox exactly as it was,” Leggett says. “I’m taking those theories and thoughts and design ideas and best applying them to Gmail in the context that is Gmail today.”

The hope is that the end result will be the best of both worlds—Gmail in its current, familiar form but with the same sort of efficiency-oriented enhancements Inbox once offered. Bringing back Bundles goes a long way toward reaching that goal. And in Leggett’s ideal world, what we’re seeing now would only be the beginning.

“The dream is that Google eventually adds some of this itself, and I can take away features,” he says. “That would be a real win.”

Want insight on interesting apps and services in your inbox every Friday? Check out my free Android Intelligence newsletter.


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Tackling long-haul diseases | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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""

Tal, who has been obsessed with infectious disease since losing an uncle to HIV/AIDS and a cousin to meningococcal meningitis, wondered what this striking diversity could reveal about our immune response to infection. According to one hypothesis, the wide array of these receptors is the result of an evolutionary arms race between disease-causing microbes and the immune system. Think of the receptor as a lock, and the “Nothing to see here” message as a key. Pathogens might evolve to produce their own chemical mimics of this key, effectively hiding from the immune system in plain sight. In response, the human population has developed a wide range of locks to frustrate any given impostor key. 

Wanting to test this hypothesis, Tal found herself walking the halls of Stanford, asking colleagues, “Who’s got a cool bug?” Someone gave her Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Previous research from Tal’s collaborator Jenifer Coburn, a microbiologist now at the Medical College of Wisconsin, had established that Lyme bacteria sport a special protein crucial for establishing a lasting infection. Knock this protein out, and the immune system swiftly overwhelms the bugs. The big question, however, was what made this protein so essential. So Tal used what’s known as a high-affinity probe as bait—and caught the Borrelia’s mimic of our “Don’t eat me” signal binding to it. In other words, she confirmed that the bacteria’s sneakyprotein was, as predicted, a close match for a healthy cell’s signal.  

Sex differences in Lyme infection

Until then, Tal says, she had never given Lyme disease much thought. But the more she learned, the more disturbed she grew. Even after timely antibiotic treatment, roughly 10% of all Lyme patients go on to develop chronic symptoms that can include crushing pain, debilitating fatigue, and cognitive changes that make basic tasks a struggle.  

This confocal micrograph depicts Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which cause Lyme disease when transmitted to humans by ticks. These Borrelia were genetically engineered to produce a green fluorescent protein.

COURTESY OF THE TAL RESEARCH GROUP

Perhaps even more alarming than the disease has been the medical community’s response to it. “I realized that there’s this public health debacle around Lyme, and it’s, for lack of a better word, obscene,” Tal says. Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, clinicians have dismissed their symptoms as signs of mental illness. The medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.” 

Today, there is no objective way to diagnose chronic Lyme, and no medically accepted therapy. For some patients, lengthy treatments with high doses of antibiotics can ease symptoms, but these come with their own serious risks. (They can, for example, damage the microbiome, leading to significant negative effects on health.) And because the antibiotic used currently only prevents bacteria from replicating, Tal notes, it’s up to the immune system to actually kill off the invaders. If immune cells can’t tell friend from foe, the utility of antibiotics may be limited. 

Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, the medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.”

For Tal, these revelations were electrifying. She dove into the immunology of Lyme disease, focusing in particular on sex differences. In one mouse experiment, she discovered that Lyme bacteria “completely disfigured” the uterus. Yet after delving through decades of Lyme research, she could find only one other study that even documented uterine infection. 

This shortfall mirrors larger problems in medical research. “We’ve let men dictate the direction of research funding for so long,” Tal says. Traditionally, studies focused on male subjects, and a 1977 FDA policy barred women from participating in most clinical trials in the US in the wake of birth defects caused by thalidomide. It wasn’t until 1993 that federal law required studies to include women and minorities. This, coupled with other sex- and gender-based medical biases, means that many female-dominated diseases remain under-researched. “So much of this research is being done on males, male mice—male, male, male,” Tal says. “And I’m like, no.” 

Tal suspects that the sex disparities seen in chronic Lyme and other pathogen-­triggered chronic diseases might come down to the fact that men mount a more robust response to acute infection. This no-holds-barred approach is risky—“Your immune system has the power to kill you,” she notes—but it may mean that men, on average, can kill off more viruses or bacteria in the critical first week of infection. After that window closes, the immune system largely settles back down, Tal says. Pathogens that escaped the initial blitz could take up long-term residence in the body, potentially causing persistent symptoms. And women have a higher chance of chronic illness.

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The Download: Alabama’s embryo ruling impact, and remote learning for pre-schoolers

Diane Davis

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An aerial view of the burnline at the edge of The Crosby.

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

The weird way Alabama’s embryo ruling takes on artificial wombs

A ruling by the Alabama Supreme Court last week that frozen embryos count as children is sending “shock waves” through the fertility industry and stoking fears that in vitro fertilization is getting swept up into the abortion debate.

The Alabama legal ruling is clearly animated by religion. But what hasn’t gotten much notice is the court’s specific argument that an embryo is a child “regardless of its location.” This could have implications for future technologies in development, such as artificial wombs or synthetic embryos made from stem cells. Read the full story. 

—Antonio Regalado

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

Remote learning can work for preschoolers

Educational interruptions due to the pandemic, climate disasters, and war have affected nearly every child on Earth since 2020. A record 43.3 million children have been driven from their homes by conflict and disasters, according to UNICEF—a number that doubled over the past decade. Despite that, less than 2% of humanitarian aid worldwide goes to supporting young kids’ care and education. 

That may be about to change, thanks to a program called Ahlan Simsin, a special version of Sesame Street that has been custom-made for Syrian refugee children. It’s the largest-ever humanitarian intervention intended for small children’s development, with remote learning a core part of it. And it’s already yielding promising early evidence that remote learning can help young children in crisis situations. Read the full story. 

—Anya Kamenetz 

This story is from the next issue of MIT technology Review, all about hidden worlds. It’s set to go live next Wednesday—subscribe now so you don’t miss out when it lands!

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The first privately-built spacecraft has touched down on the moon
The Odysseus lunar lander has already started to send back data, according to its developer, Intuitive Machines. (CNN
There are more private landers headed there too. (NYT $)

2 Five charts that show how Nvidia took over the world 
It added more than $276 billion in market value yesterday, more than any other company in a single day. (WSJ $)
Its chips underpin advanced AI systems, giving it a market share estimated at over 80%. (WSJ $)

3 Mothers are selling photos of their kids to pedophiles online
This is a very important, but also very disturbing, read. (NYT $)
Five crucial takeaways from the investigation. (NYT $)

4 What it’s like to cry while wearing an Apple Vision Pro 
Kinda lonely, from the sounds of it. (Wired $)
What would wearing the Vision Pro all day do to our brains? (Scientific American $)
+ These minuscule pixels are poised to take augmented reality by storm. (MIT technology Review)

5 Who actually wants an AI search engine?
It still looks a bit like a solution searching for a problem. (Fast Company)
+ Chrome has added an AI feature that helps you to write. (The Verge)
Chatbots could one day replace search engines. Here’s why that’s a terrible idea. (MIT technology Review)
+ AI-generated videos are here to awe and mislead. (Vox)

6 A GPT-4 developer tool can hack websites autonomously
Not good. (New Scientist $)
Three ways AI chatbots are a security disaster. (MIT technology Review)
AI could help defend against security threats too though, says Google CEO Sundar Pichai. (CNBC)

7 What it’s like to hang out with the 46-year-old ‘anti-aging’ millionaire 
At a rave, no less. (The Atlantic $)
Longevity enthusiasts want to create their own independent state. They’re eyeing Rhode Island. (MIT technology Review)

8 X is becoming a bit of a hellscape  
Especially for famous women, as Bobbi Althoff has unfortunately found in recent days. (WP $)
Three ways we can fight deepfake porn. (MIT technology Review)
X has been removing accounts and posts critical of the Indian government. (Reuters $)

9 Humane’s AI Pin has been delayed
The vibes are getting pretty inauspicious for this product, frankly. (The Verge)

10 A startup wants to turn the sugar we eat into fiber 
Pretty neat—if it works as promised. (Wired $)

Quote of the day

“The balance of power has shifted back to employers.”

—Laszlo Bock, an adviser at the venture capital firm General Catalyst, tells Wired why tech job interviews are becoming more and more onerous for applicants. 

The big story

The quest to build wildfire-resistant homes

An aerial view of the burnline at the edge of The Crosby.

DON BARTLETTI/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES

April 2023

With each devastating wildfire in the US West, officials consider new methods or regulations that might save homes or lives the next time.

In the parts of California where the hillsides meet human development, and where the state has suffered recurring seasonal fire tragedies, that search for new means of survival has especially high stakes.

Many of these methods are low cost and low tech, but no less truly innovative. In fact, the hardest part to tackle may not be materials engineering, but social change. Read the full story.

—Susie Cagle

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ This ‘reverse packet ramen’ TikTok is mesmerizing.
+ These quotes have got me craving bubbles.
+ If I ever won the lottery, it’d become obvious pretty quickly. 
+ Here’s a fun challenge for you this weekend: try doing absolutely nothing.


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Technology & Innovation

Yes, remote learning can work for preschoolers

Diane Davis

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""

Mariam, one of the mothers in the camp, has two girls, five and four years old, and her greatest wish is that they get an education. She herself stopped her schooling at the sixth grade. “Reading and writing,” she said through an interpreter, “is the most important thing in life.”

A focus on resilience

Sesame Street premiered in the United States in 1969 with a social mission born out of the civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society: to level the playing field for poor kids by bringing early learning into the home for free. 

The show debuted its first foreign-­language co-productions in Brazil and Mexico just three years later; there have been a total of 42 international co-­productions over the years. A meta-analysis of studies with over 10,000 children in 15 countries found that these programs have had significant positive effects on children’s mastery of reading and basic math concepts, as well as their social-emotional skills and attitudes toward out-groups.  

An Arabic version of the show (Iftah Ya Simsim/Open Sesame, which many of today’s parents in the region grew up with) ran from 1979 to 1989. But Ahlan Simsim is the first production created deliberately for children affected by crisis and conflict, and that necessitated some special sensitivity.

The social-emotional curriculum for the show had to be designed from scratch for the cultural context and needs of these children, says Shanna Kohn, the director of international education at Sesame Workshop. “We went in with the idea of a show that focused on resilience—a beloved Western concept. And we brought that to this team of academics and Arab advisors, and there was a lot of skepticism. There isn’t even a clear Arabic translation,” says Kohn. 

So the team backed up and started with the basics. They had to figure out how to present relatable stories—about Jad leaving home and feeling different from his friends—without introducing situations or concepts that might be triggering for young viewers. 

Elmo with children in a classroom in Saida, Lebanon.

RYAN HEFFERNAN/SESAME WORKSHOP

“Boats are usually a go-to for preschool children,” says Scott Cameron, who has been with the company for 25 years. “We avoided things like that, for obvious reasons.” They also avoided loud noises, like thunderstorms. They skipped nutrition lessons, because kids who are barely getting enough to eat can’t use reminders about fruits and vegetables. 

Kids who are traumatized often respond with an outward numbness; the research team found that the children were using only two or three terms—happy, sad, angry—to describe their feelings. To help them process these feelings and frustrations, the show defines the Arabic words for nine emotions: caring, fear, frustration, nervousness, hope or determination, jealousy, loneliness, and sadness. Jad and Basma model emotional coping strategies: belly breathing, counting to five, “moving it out,” “drawing it out,” asking for help, and making a plan. 

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