Rethinking the Inbox with Caramel

September 4, 2012 Boris Chan

This is a series of articles on Building Social by Default on Mobile as part of our Caramel preview.

In order to design apps and experiences on mobile, it is no longer enough to just think about simple and correct functionality. Paring down is a necessity but no longer the only thing to consider on mobile. As a user discovers more apps and relies on their mobile device for their day-to-day use, there is an increasing need to make these apps work together. And to do so, we need to rethink the inbox.

Apps and Silos

Apps, as defined by Steve Jobs at his 2007 keynote for the iPhone, dictate the current smartphone experience. These single-function applications are designed to let you perform tasks and interact with the device. But the problem with apps is they lock your life into app silos, and these silos have a hard to time talking to each other. Your email is locked away into one, your text messages in another, and your contact list yet another. The idea of social networking on the phone is to connect us all together, but really its given us a boxed-in way to communicate – through many different apps. When someone asks: “Did you get my message?” You have to think, what do they mean? Was it an SMS, an email, a tweet, Facebook message?

BlackBerry: An Early Mobile Inbox

An early success story on an inbox that helps aggregate these silos is the unified messages inbox on BlackBerry. This inbox provided a unique way of exposing all the things you did on your phone, which at the time focussed around emails, BBM messages and texts. This soon expanded to Facebook, Twitter and the current crop of social networks. On iOS and Android this behaviour is eventually emulated temporally via Notification Center and the notification tray on Android. New platforms must embrace this.

iOS 6: Passbook

On iOS 6, Apple announced Passbook, a place to collect all your tickets, gift cards, boarding passes and other items that would normally be kept in your app. This is an inbox that aggregates on commerce activity and timing, and brings you this information when it’s relevant to you (it even will notify you when you need your boarding pass!). Notification Center is an inbox for your apps in a public place. With the launch of OS X Mountain Lion and Windows 8, this concept of aggregation is making its way back to the current generation of computing platforms across device classes.

Android 4.1 Jelly Bean: Google Now, Google Play

Android Jelly Bean OS’s take on Siri is Google Now – a card system and voice search that helps you organize your life. Google Now will remind you in card form when you should be leaving for your next calendar appointment, tell you the weather in the area, provide you details of traffic conditions and so forth. It’s also an inbox centered around activity and context of what you’re doing.

Rethinking the Inbox

The challenge: making your phone social by default requires rethinking the inbox. Our aggregated activity can’t just live in one place. Apps that use social networking need to be able to interact with their user in integrated means. Solely having access to notifications or just the app will limit what could happen if mobile platforms allowed services to be aggregated at the points at which a user’s activity meets the social network.

Building Social into the core of Android with Caramel

When we started Caramel this was the first challenge that we sought to tackle. We decided that we would develop a prototype that would demonstrate the ability to provide access to social networking data in core apps, and to be able to aggregate this activity into a social inbox. Just as Passbook and Google Now are centered around your activity in the real world, the Social Inbox is centered around your interaction with your friends in your social network. Check out how we’re rethinking the way mobile should be social at our Caramel preview.

About the Author


Caramel and Building Social by Default: General Assembly × Extreme Startups, Future Insights, NXNEi BUILD, MobileDevTO
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