Last summer, the team behind the popular iOS to-do app Orchestra announced their lofty goal of reinventing email for the masses with a mobile app called Mailbox. The announcement was paired with a tactic guest post on TechCrunch by Orchestra CEO Gentry Underwood, in which the inbox was (rightfully) villanized as anachronistic, excessive, poorly interfaced and a developer’s nightmare. The complaint was a gospel, and a perfect lead-up to the tease that followed in December, when Mailbox’s demo video went viral, sucking hundreds of thousands of emails into their reservation queue.
Last Thursday, the app dropped exclusively for Gmail users. Mailbox has been welcoming users in order of reservation, opening the floodgates in zones like an airplane boarding; it’s a smart system, supporting gradual server load and adding extra prestige and excitement to the moment of acceptance. At time of writing, there were over 700,000 in queue, and that number has been increasing even as Mailbox opens for those at the top of the list. This is undoubtedly the most hyped email anything since ever. But is it something?
When you start using the app, Mailbox suggests you adhere to the “inbox zero” method, a divisive strategy of email maintenance in which true salvation is found in an empty inbox. Mailbox treats your emails like to-dos, and your business is to do all of them. Forget archives, stars, and labels—the point of Mailbox is to treat emails as actionable items. If you’ve dealt with an email, a sweet swipe gesture reminiscent of to-do app Clear “checks off” (archives) your message. If it’s useless junk, swipe a little more and the email is straight-up deleted.
Now what if you acknowledge the email but aren’t ready to deal with it, what then? In iOS Mail and Gmail, you can ‘star’ or ‘flag’ to denote basic importance or move the conversation to a folder. You can do the same in Mailbox but the labels are actionable like “To Read” and “To Buy.” (After all, it’s a to-do list metaphor.) While organizationally these labels create nested inboxes, they are really mini to-do lists. The main way to digest the rest of your email—and the killer feature of the app—is by swiping to the side to “snooze”; chose when you want the email to reappear (like “later today” or “next week”) and it will get out of your way until then. Why should an email that doesn’t necessitate immediacy sit toward the top of your inbox or buried in folders? Snoozing an email for tomorrow will become so second-nature that you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. It’s a mindset, and it works beautifully.
A lot better than it’s competition, at least. Alternative email client Sparrow, whose mobile version had a brief-but-strong following before a Google buyout, never succeeded because it was impossibly slow and the developers were too sensitive of privacy (or cheap?) to use their server to monitor email and send push notifications (as Mailbox does). Gmail’s own Priority Inbox has and continues to be an important recognition of email’s need to be tamed, but it doesn’t address the issue of actioning emails. Extensions like Boomerang and RightInbox have popularized email snoozing and other GTD features, but Mailbox is the first to adapt the concept for efficient mobile use.
And that makes sense, since we’re combing through more email on mobile devices than ever before; after all, the phone’s very size makes a stuffed inbox feel manageable by presenting only a few conversations at a time. Mailbox honors the mobile experience by eliminating Gmail favorites like “mute” and custom labels, opting instead for the bare necessities so you can concentrate now and obsess later.
You can guarantee Mailbox will evolve and improve because Mailbox—not Gmail—is footing the bill for push notifications, so paid features are on the horizon. Hopefully they’ll bring the Mailbox metaphor to a desktop app or Gmail plug-in, because right now the experience fizzes out in native Gmail, where lists and snoozes turn into flat stars and labels. Since they already have a direct connection to your email account, you can bet missing features like address aliasing, message scheduling and reply monitoring are on the radar.
And when the time comes, we’ll pay for it. We’re already hooked.