iOS email apps: highlights and data

What with the new Gmail upgrade and Mailbox hype I’ve been wondering just how fragmented iOS has become, especially as the Gmail app doesn’t support responsive design.

While I like to keep track of iOS email apps, I’ve always considered them edge cases and don’t sweat them during QA. Though lately I’ve been getting more questions about them from clients, so I thought I’d share some highlights from the more popular apps and put them in perspective regarding render testing.


Birdseye mail

Designed for the iPad to be touch friendly, in a side scrolling layout. My favorite Birdseye feature is you can scroll emails in the preview without having to open them, taking scalable layouts to a whole new level. It supports @media, with the preview showing the smartphone layout and on open it renders desktop…slick

While you’re waiting for creative to load, it shows your avatar as a placeholder. Many iOS Mail apps make creative use of avatars, so its worth heading over to Gravatar and getting set up.




Forget the butler clip art, the iPad app has just had a Masonry-style makeover. You can preview text before opening, and it supports @media. Although it displays the occasional image thumbnail, Incredimail’ inbox is far more text filled than Birdseye. Though the Facebook photo stream aligns with the image-driven UI trend.

I imagine we’ll see more of these lean back inboxes, geared towards weekend and evening browsing. As the CEO of Birdseye states, “Our interaction with tablets is different and our needs in terms of email is different.”




Besides the nice use of avatars, my favorite Evomail feature is when you tap and hold the subject line it switches to a full-screen view of the creative (below right). It supports @media, showing the smartphone layout by default then reverting to desktop in full-screen mode.

There’s been some debate in the mobile web community around density - focused concentration vs. scanning and wayfinding is how Cameron Moll describes it -  this app recognizes both use cases.


default view and fullscreen mode



Mailbox has proven to be a bit of a pain during render testing, it has quirks. Though I love how you can swipe messages to delete or snooze with just your thumb. Side swiping is big on all these apps and something we also saw new in iOS7.

Mailbox has just been acquired by Dropbox. Sometimes acquisitions can turn early adopters off, with fears that the product will be “cannnibalized“. This is one of the down sides to using apps, development can stop or change course at any time. Mail may be dull in comparison but it isn’t going anywhere.


mailbox side swipe actions



My main question regarding the Gmail update, was does it show up in big enough numbers on iOS that I need to add it to my QA. I asked Justine Jordan over at Litmus, and she kindly pulled all their stats for June 2013:

23% of all opens are categorized by us as “Apple iPhone”

0.11% are categorized as “Gmail using iPhone”

0.09% are categorized as “Gmail using iPad”

(Grand total of 0.2% viewing “Gmail on iOS”)

Looking at only mobile opens,

53% categorized as “Apple iPhone”

0.25% categorized as “Gmail using iPhone”

0.2% categorized as “Gmail using iPad”

(Grand total 0.45% viewing “Gmail on iOS”)

“Keep in mind that due to the way that some of the third party iOS apps report their user agents, they may be categorized as the native client (”Apple iPhone”). So while the Gmail app will report as “Gmail using iPhone,” the Mailbox app is going to report as “Apple iPhone.”

I would definitely say that based on the data we have (limited as it might be by technology itself), and anecdotal evidence…that these apps are not worth fighting over. They’re used by early adopters, techno-geeks and the curious, and usually abandoned after playing around for a few minutes to see what the fuss is about. Fun? Yes. Worth worrying about? Maybe, after you get all your stuff looking and performing well on the built-in apps!” - Justine

So while it doesn’t hurt to take a quick peek at how your creative renders in these apps, don’t prioritize them or waste time debugging every little thing.


tabs and no @media support (scalable fallback)



The original Mail alternative, Sparrow had a good run before it was acquired by Goggle in 2012. Lack of continued development makes it less appealing. Though Justine over at Litmus, tells me that Sparrow desktop shows up in their aggregate monthly reports so its still in play.

While Sparrow supports responsive design it doesn’t play nice with horizontal layouts, scaling to the width (you can zoom in). Horizontal layouts in iOS apps are a mixed bag, unlike the default Mail client which scales to the height, apps like Sparrow, Evomail and Gmail scale to the width and in some cases don’t support zoom.


scales to width with horizontal emails



Boxer is the only iOS app that hooks up to both Exchange and Gmail making it more appealing to B2B. It also handles Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail, iCloud, Google Apps, Boxer has a “Like” button which sends a message to the sender acknowledging that you received their email.

It also supports responsive design, animated Gifs, pull to refresh, avatars and renders horizontal layouts like the Mail client so its OK by me.


Of course we like Campaign Monitor!


iOS still a native stronghold

It’s a relief to know that iOS isn’t as fragmented as Android, and that it’s still overwhelmingly a responsive design friendly platform. While I might peek at app rendering, its not something to fuss over. Still I really like some of the innovations and UI in these apps, and consider them worth keeping up-to-date with. Birdseye might even have made a convert out of me…


5 Responses to “iOS email apps: highlights and data”

  • Alex Williams
    July 2nd, 2013 20:18

    Wow, I never knew about that Evomail feature. Trying to scroll the email right activates a reply which drove me crazy. How would a user know to do that?

  • Anna Yeaman
    July 3rd, 2013 07:14

    Yeah I don’t know what half the icons/actions in these apps do, some of it isn’t that intuitive. Think I might have come across the full-screen feature from the coach marks when I first installed it. Can’t remember if it was Evomail or one of the others. A couple of them had a little tutorial at the start (which I’d normally skip).

  • Stephen Hill
    July 5th, 2013 09:47

    Although not the main point of the post, I’m quite shocked with the stats in terms of how many people view their emails using the gmail app on iphone (0.25%). I wonder if it’s a similar figure for Android devices?

    The reason I ask is because that is without doubt the most popular question we get asked as a company… “Why isn’t my email responsive on the Gmail app?”.

    In an ideal world the Gmail app would support responsive design, but it’s an awkward conversation to have with a client when you’ve sold them the fact that responsive design is the way to go.

  • Anna Yeaman
    July 5th, 2013 10:22

    Hi Stephen,

    same here I was really surprised how low the iOS Gmail app no.s were. I’d guess its the most popular email app - second to native Mail - so I was expecting it to be much higher. I can’t say I’m not pleased though as it doesn’t support responsive design. Thanks to Litmus we can at least share those no.s with our clients, though they’ll fluctuate list to list.

    My guess is the Gmail app is far more popular on Android, though its hard to get accurate data. At least it renders full screen now so things are looking up.

  • Stephen Hill
    July 5th, 2013 14:57

    I’m with you Anna. Secretly it’s going to be very satisfying to put some stats a clients way, and actually say to them that its not as big of a deal as they think.

    Similarly I agree that the Gmail app will most likely be popular on Android devices. Most people with an iPhone I know use the inbuilt mail client, but similarly most Android people I know (including myself) tend to lean towards the apps and in particular the Gmail one.

    Things are certainly moving in the right direction with the Gmail app, but I pray for the day that it gets full @media support. I’ve often thought about starting a moving up like the “Fix Outlook” one that the guys at Campaign Monitor did a few years ago, but this time branding it as “Fix Gmail”!


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