03 August 2013

Gmail & the Apple Notes App

There are frequent questions in the Gmail Help Forum regarding Notes that have been stored by the Apple Notes App in Gmail accounts. Apple provide no detailed instructions for using their Notes App, nor do their support documents explain exactly how Notes are "synced" to Gmail accounts, or indeed to any other email account that a Notes user might choose.

This leads to extreme confusion amongst Notes users, with regular disappearance of apparently saved Notes.

So I have spent a number of days trawling through all the various support sites, including Apple's own Support Forums, to try to determine how this strange little App actually works. The result is a whole mass of anecdotal evidence, which - while it makes it clear how this App works - is not backed up by any official Apple documentation. Nor can I test any of these suppositions based on the anecdotal evidence, because I do not own an iPhone or any other type of iDevice, and don't know anyone I can borrow one from for some testing.

So with that caveat in mind, here's how Notes appears to work, and how it appears to work specifically with Gmail accounts:
  • Apple Notes users can elect to have their Notes stored "On my iPhone/iPad/Mac" or synced to any email account of their choice (though with some versions of iOS, Notes Sync = ON appears to be a default setting)
  • If Notes users choose the former, all well and good - that's what happens. Notes are stored on the Apple device only, and there are no issues
  • If users choose the latter (or don't set the sync option to OFF), then the Notes app will send their Notes from their devices via Gmail to Gmail (or the email account of their choice) using an IMAP connection, in much the same way as an IMAP client works.
  • They appear to arrive in Gmail as both outgoing and incoming messages, labelled as Notes and archived on arrival. They are actually "Sent Mail", although this label is also suppressed during the IMAP transfer, and they do not usually appear under the Gmail Sent Mail label, unless Gmail accounts go through maintenance and have their Sent Mail re-labelled.
  • This initial transfer is one way only. Notes cannot be "restored" or sent back from Gmail to the iDevice
  • Once Notes have been created and sent to Gmail they are deleted from the device - no copies are kept on the device at all.
  • Henceforth, when a user calls up their Notes on the Apple device, the Notes app accesses them from Gmail to display them in the Notes app on the device
  • If Notes are then deleted from Gmail in the web interface - and many users do delete them, because they don't know what they are, don't know why they are there, and if they do know why they are there, they mistakenly consider them to be duplicates of data already stored on their device - the Notes are gone from Gmail and cannot therefore be accessed by the device. They will survive for 30 days in Gmail's Trash, where they are inaccessible by the Notes App but still recoverable by the user.
  • If they are deleted using the iPhone/iPad Mail client, although most iDevices "delete" to All Mail, deleting the Notes folder in the Apple Mail App removes the label in Gmail. So the Notes App can't access them anyway, even though the Notes are still present in All Mail without a label. So to all intents and purposes, the Notes are gone.


That depends on what the user has actually done.
  • If the Notes have been deleted from the Gmail account whilst in the web interface, they will exist - plus their Notes label - in Gmail's Trash for 30 days before being auto-deleted. During that time they can be restored to their previous position. If that happens, then the Notes App will once again be able to access them, and will resume showing them in the Notes App on the iDevice
  • If the Notes folder was deleted using the Mail App on the iDevice, then the Notes probably all still exist in All Mail in the Gmail account. But they have no label. Searching All Mail - preferably using the web interface - and re-applying the Notes label to any found Note will restore those Notes to the App on the iDevice


Don't sync your iDevice Notes to any of your email accounts - if you value your Notes, there are too many areas where user error can occur for this to be safe. Keep them on your iDevice. Make a point of using your iDevice account settings to turn OFF synchronisation of your Notes to any of your email accounts.