There was a moment, after the introduction of Mailbox, when the hype was deafening. The most recent cycle of the ‘email is broken’ debate was raging, and for some Mailbox looked like the right answer at the right moment. And since I’m among those who think that actually there’s nothing wrong with email itself, all the talk about Mailbox didn’t particularly pique my interest. Even less when I learnt that there was a reservation system in place, practically putting prospective users on a waiting list before they could effectively use the app.
What started to interest me, though, was the subsequent debate around Mailbox, and after reading some positive reviews (Lex Friedman’s at Macworld, this one at Gadget Review, and Cody Fink’s at Macstories, just to name a few), I shrugged, thought Well, why not?, and installed Mailbox on my iPhone. If I have to criticise something, my usual course of action is to try it first-hand. After a little more than a week of use, I believe I can share some initial impressions.
I manage email in a pretty straightforward way (for me at least). I have separate accounts to handle different types of incoming messages (personal, work-related, mailing lists, newsletters and promotional emails, notification messages from social networks/services, etc.). I generally do not accumulate enormous backlogs: work-related emails are always top-priority, then there are personal communications, then mailing lists, and then all the rest. I don’t follow the Inbox Zero school of thought, and as I sometimes say jokingly, that’s probably why I reach Inbox Zero that often. Humour aside, I think that it’s just experience. As I said previously, In the end it’s just a matter of setting up an effective filtering system. I devised this approach over a weekend years ago, and it hasn’t changed much since.
If you’re familiar with Mailbox and its underlying philosophy, you’ll be inclined to think that it’s probably not the best email client for someone who manages email the way that I do. And in fact the short answer is that no, it’s not the email client I’d put in my iPhone dock. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good email client.
The reservation system
Let me tell you: the experience of waiting in a virtual line before being able to set up the app was frustrating. When I signed up, on February 27, I had roughly 870,000 people before me. The wait lasted a whole month. I understand the reasons behind the reservation system: as the developers wrote on the Mailbox website, Mailbox checks email from the cloud in order to deliver it as fast as possible to the phone, support push notifications, and facilitate email snoozing. The IMAP protocol is nearly 30 years old and a part of reinventing the inbox is building a secure, modern API that’s better suited for mobile devices. In order to provide a robust, world-class email experience, we are filling reservations on a first-come, first-served basis.
The negative side-effect of this reservation system is that people are not exactly accustomed to waiting a few weeks before being able to use an iOS app. The App Store dynamics celebrate instant gratification. The waiting experience did put my patience to the test, and after fifteen days of wait, my interest in trying out Mailbox definitely waned. One thing I had to do was to simply stop thinking about it, so I buried the app in a folder and started checking the queue occasionally. When my Mailbox was finally available I was very close to delete the app for good.
Mailbox’s UI is designed around efficiency and minimalism (the good kind, the staying-out-of-the-way kind).
As you can see, just the list of messages, a Search field and five buttons, all with clear, unambiguous icons. I also like that it uses the iPhone’s status bar as its activity panel. Again, pleasantly out-of-the-way design.
Simplicity is also found in how you interact with the app. I usually dislike applications that heavily rely on gestures, because if gestures are not implemented thoughtfully, it’s easy to end up with obscure or accidental actions. For that matter I generally prefer buttons: either you tap a button or not. But Mailbox implements simple gestures, and with enough visual feedback that’s very hard to make mistakes (and even if you do make a mistake, every action is ‘undoable’). For example, at first I scratched my head to understand how to perform a ‘short swipe’ versus a ‘long swipe’ when handling messages, but in practice it’s far more intuitive: as soon as you put your finger on a message and slide it on the right, for instance, Mailbox shows you what happens in real time using colours and icons. First green and the ‘Archive’ icon, then red and the ‘Delete’ icon. Very difficult to select the wrong action.
As other reviewers pointed out, Mailbox’s method invites the user to take action on email messages as if they were tasks in a sort of to-do list. Here’s a new email message: what to do with it? With simple gestures, you can archive it, delete it or choose to deal with it later by ‘snoozing’ it. Gestures are spatial and you always know in which direction to swipe because the button layout is there to remind you: the ‘mailbox area’ is in the middle, left is ‘Later’ (I love how the icon for ‘Later’ can be seen as a clock but also as a ‘L’ inside a circle), right is ‘Archive’. The goal is to get to the end of the day having dealt with all incoming messages, in a way or another, and hopefully having reached Inbox Zero.
If you follow the Inbox Zero school of thought, I believe that Mailbox is the mobile email app you were waiting for. It’s simple, fast, efficient. But what happens if you don’t usually manage email that way? A little friction is what happens. Little, because it’s not an unsurmountable obstacle, but enough that it’s unlikely you’ll adopt Mailbox as the primary email client on your iPhone.
For example, since I manage email more traditionally, when I look at Mailbox’s Inbox view (the image above), I just see all my read messages, i.e. a list of messages I have already dealt with (their status is Read, which in my mind and in my management system is the equivalent of I’m done with it). But in Mailbox’s system, all those read messages are still messages you need to act on, they are like tasks you haven’t tackled yet. In fact, if you enter Mailbox’s Settings > App Badge Count and select Show inbox conversation count (which is selected by default), you’ll see the Mailbox app icon with a probably very high badge count (2,600 in my case) and you’ll think: But those can’t be unread messages/threads, I’ve already read them! It’s because Mailbox sees all those messages as ‘undone tasks’. To make that high count disappear you’ll have to deal with every single message.
And apparently Mailbox doesn’t allow handling messages in bulk (at least, I haven’t found a way, maybe I’m missing something), so if you set up a Gmail account which has thousands of emails in its Inbox folder, and if you want to deal with email the Mailbox way, I suggest you visit that Gmail account via the Web interface, select everything and choose Gmail’s Archive option. That way, the next time Mailbox syncs your account, everything will be archived and will ‘disappear’ from Mailbox’s inbox.
This is where I noticed the most friction when using Mailbox. I’m not used to ‘archiving’ messages in my various Gmail accounts, and I just leave everything in the Inbox. And I may be receiving a series of email notifications I want to deal with quickly by marking them all read. Due to Mailbox’s different approach, there isn’t any option to select multiple messages and mark them read, yet I find myself looking for it all the time. This aspect — for me at least — is a constant interference and slows down my email management. To be fair, it’s not Mailbox’s fault: the developer’s website is very clear about what to expect from the app, and the friction I experienced mainly stems from the collision between two different methods for managing emails. Still, a little bit of flexibility on Mailbox’s part would be appreciated.
Some time ago, Mat Honan wrote this about Mailbox:
Sure, Mailbox makes getting to inbox zero easier. But after spending a few days with it, I’m not sure that it actually makes me faster or more productive at reading and responding to e-mail. It imposes a rigid system on me that doesn’t do everything I need it to, so I end up opening other e-mail apps anyway. That means I’m ultimately spending even more time than I already was on e-mail. I hate e-mail.
Mailbox will be great for some people. But it doesn’t reinvent email; it just automates a process that may not work for you.
Considering my experience with Mailbox, so far, I tend to agree with Honan. I don’t hate email, but I certainly don’t like to end up spending more time managing it, either. As I’ve said, Mailbox is a very nice app, and gets a lot of things right, especially in the user interface and interaction departments. Whether it’s going to be a great app for you largely depends on how ingrained your email management habits and methods are.
- If you already have perfected an efficient, satisfactory system to deal with your email, and such system doesn’t involve the Inbox Zero philosophy, then I guess you’ll have a hard time getting used to Mailbox.
- If your email management is rooted in a ‘Getting Things Done’/Inbox Zero approach, then using Mailbox will likely be delightful.
- If you don’t have a specific method to manage email and your email situation is generally a mess, Mailbox could be an interesting tool to use, giving you a good way to start managing your email more efficiently.
I’m in situation No. 1, and I’m actually a happy user of Apple’s iOS Mail app, but I’ll definitely keep Mailbox around because I’m very interested in its future development, now that it has been acquired by Dropbox.