Apps are increasingly dictatorial in their design. Whether it’s a productivity app, a silly way to take goofy pictures, or basically anything Apple has ever created, they all foist upon their users a certain point of view on the right way to do things. You do this, and then swipe over here, and can you rate us five stars on the App Store?
Airmail for iOS, a new email app out today, is the blissful opposite. By default, it feels like your average iOS 9 client: It peeks, it pops, it has those hard-press quick actions. There’s no single feature that stands out, though it has everything you’d expect. The real beauty of Airmail is that absolutely everything about it is up to you. You’re in charge of the colors, the icons, the way you read and respond to messages, what happens when you swipe a little, what happens when you swipe a lot, which order conversations display, what you can do to an email. It’s like each individual Airmail user, for the price of $4.99, gets to go back in time and sit with the company’s designers to create the exact email client they want to use.
By default, the app is a little cluttered and complicated the same way too many email apps are. It feels almost as if it’s that way on purpose, so that you’ll look for a way to turn off that hideous red stripe next to every single message in your Gmail and instead discover the treasure trove of options that awaits you.
So many email apps are predicated on the idea that their job is to make email feel as little like work as possible. Airmail acts like it knows email is messy and complicated, and that its job is to help you wrangle it in as many ways as humanly possible. Your inbox is endlessly filterable—you can see unread messages only, or things with attachments, or only emails from today, all with one tap. When you’re composing an email, there are enough formatting options to drive any recipient crazy. You can connect Airmail to other apps on your phone, and easily move stuff around.
Airmail isn’t for everybody. Even at its most stripped-down, virtually every screen is covered in icons and bubbles. It’s hardly the minimalist beauty that is Mailbox (RIP). It’s also not finished: For one thing, it’s slow to load messages, which qualifies as a fairly central issue. But it’s a wonderful departure from the way apps work now. Too many apps leave no room to the imagination—they close every loophole and answer every question, often to their detriment. Tinkerers and tweakers are forced to use apps like Workflow and IFTTT just to make things work the way they want, because developers fear turning users off with complexity. In many instances, that’s the right approach. But not for email. Airmail for iOS is great because it has no agenda—it’s just a junkyard for your email, for you to deal with any way you want. Everyone’s going to use it differently, and that’s beautiful.