Google API Gives Developers Easier Access to Gmail io14

In principal the API looks like a good thing. In principal, Google wants to make it easier to let internet applications use information in your email, with the user’s permission. The question is how much access to your information will the new API need and how much access will the new API get?

That Pesky Privacy Question

Google says that access to the data will be on the basis of user’s permission to access the data -- without that permission nothing can happen. How far those permission extend and how that works in practice remains to be seen.

Details of the new API were released during the I/O conference, which is taking place in San Francisco June 25 to 26. According to Google, this is the first step towards turning Gmail into a platform for developers who want to use the contents of email for productivity apps.

This is where there privacy concerns arise. While it is well established that Google scans Gmail accounts in order to supply targeted advertising, letting third-party developer’s access it is a privacy storm waiting to happen.

Gmail API Beta

Why is Google taking this step? The reason given in the announcement was so the massive resources contained in more than 400 million Gmail users’ accounts could be put to further use.

This is not the first time that the idea of using email content to create new apps has been suggested, and many apps already use email content with user's permission. But this has always been through IMAP.

IMAP, or Internet Message Access Protocol, is a protocol for email retrieval and storage developed in 1986 at Stanford University. It allows multiple clients to simultaneously connect to the same mailbox. But developers complain it is clumsy and difficult to use.

This is where the new API comes in. According to a blog post written by Eric DeFriez, a technical lead on the Gmail Extensibility Team, IMAP has had its day and doesn’t cover the “really cool” things developers are working on at the moment.

For a while now, many of you have been asking for a better way to access data to build apps that integrate with Gmail. While IMAP is great at what it was designed for (connecting email clients to email servers in a standard way), it wasn’t really designed to do all of the cool things that you have been working on, which is why this week at Google I/O, we’re launching the beta of the new Gmail API."

DeFriez also pointed out that unlike IMAP, which requires access to all of a user’s messages for all operations, the new API gives fine-grained control to a users’ mailbox. This means access to email content will be limited to the precise needs of a given app.

He cited the example of an app that only needs to send a mail on behalf of a user. In those cases account owners can limit the permissions to send-only. The other big advantage is speed.

While there’s still some tuning to be done ('beta' -- remember?), results from our tests and feedback from pre-release developers suggest that the new Gmail API is delivering dramatic performance improvements over IMAP for web application use cases,” De Friez wrote.

It’s hard to know how this new API will do. The timing of the beta release is a little clumsy given that much of the controversy surrounding Gmail, privacy and email scanning still hasn’t entirely dissipated.

But if Google can do it discreetly and convince its Gmail users that the access it is offering will be strictly limited, then it could be an interesting development particularly given the number of accounts that Google will have access to.

The new beta is now available for those who are interested to sign up. There is no firm date yet on when it will be generally available.

Title image by Elijah Nouvelage (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license