Software

Who wants dynamic dancing animations and code in their emails? Everyone! says Google

Y'all loved AMP for the web, now get it in your inboxes

By Thomas Claburn in San Francisco

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Having last year axed its scanning of Gmail messages after years of withering privacy criticism, Google has decided to court controversy again in this area.

Now it is extending its much-loved Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) technology to email inboxes.

In a blog post on Tuesday, Gmail product manager Aakash Sahney announced AMP for Email, which allows messages to be formatted and sent as an AMP document.

For publishers and marketers, this means the ability to make messages function more like web apps, with dynamic content, elaborate images, animation, and code. Some people may find this appealing.

For those who view advertising as a crime against privacy, it's another reason to select the privacy-preserving "Ask before displaying external images" from Gmail settings to ensure messages can be read in text-only mode, without loading tracking pixels or graphics.

And for litigators, it's a potential headache because AMP messages, rather than being static documents, may be dynamic, with different content on every open.

AMP is Google's framework for making web content load faster, particularly on resource-constrained, bandwidth-limited mobile devices. It competes with similar efforts like Apple News Format and Facebook Instant Articles, though it appears to be outpacing its rivals.

It exists because online publishers, having prioritized ad revenue over user experience, like to lard their pages with JavaScript code and hefty media files that take forever to load, thereby driving impatient and security-conscious people away.

By encouraging publishers to adopt its streamlined format with third-party JavaScript limited to sandboxed iFrames, Google promises more efficient content delivery, which presumably leads to a happier audience and more satisfied publishers.

There's some reason to believe that outcome is possible.

Last year, Joseph Wynn, a software engineer for the BBC at the time, observed that, despite his reservations about AMP, it helped at the BBC.

"I have plenty of concerns about AMP, both technical and ethical," he wrote in a post on news aggregator Lobste.rs. "But when we joined the AMP trial, we immediately saw higher user engagement on our AMP pages. This ended up being a massive catalyst for a shift towards performance-focused culture across the whole of BBC News."

A fair number of publishers appear to be of a similar mind.

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In a blog post coinciding with Google's AMP Conf in Amsterdam on Tuesday, Malte Ubl, engineering lead for AMP at Google, said over 31 million domains have created 5 million AMP pages since the technology debuted in early 2016.

But AMP's adoption has been accompanied by controversy. Critics charge that AMP locks publishers into Google's ecosystem, suffers from rendering errors, obscures article URLs, and requires JavaScript loaded from a content delivery network, which isn't optimal in terms of security.

AMP also provides less analytics data than self-served content and allows disreputable organizations to cloak themselves in a Google URL to appear more trustworthy.

Beyond that, AMP is ostensibly an open source project but it's governed by Google rather than a vendor-neutral community organization. If you submit a pull request that doesn't align with Google's goals, it won't be accepted.

Google is not entirely unresponsive to complaints related to AMP. It has committed to making the canonical URL of AMP content visible later this year, so viewers can associate the content with its publisher rather than Google. That's a start.

For the time being, AMP for Email won't be as useful to advertisers as general AMP pages. The options available to AMP for Email will be limited while security concerns are ironed out.

"AMP does indeed support ad tech, however this will not be available in the initial versions of AMP for Email," said Sahney in an email to The Register. "We’ve started with a conservative set of supported AMP components, prioritizing user safety and security."

For those troubled by Google's dominance of online search and advertising, the Chocolate Factory's promotion of its own dialect for the web and now email will only exacerbate those feeling.

"AMP is unnecessary," said developer Sean Gilbertson in an issues post to the AMP repo on GitHub. "By embracing it, it results in a de facto 'ownership' of the lingua franca of the internet by a huge, monolithic corporation that already has an outsized influence on culture and technology. I'd rather have my plain old 'unsafe' internet."

But if flashy, interactive messages sound like just the thing, Google is accepting signups for the Gmail Developer Preview of AMP for Email, to test the tech on Gmail users. ®

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