Designed 30 years ago, traditional email transmission is clunky and slow.
This is the problem – since its inception, not a lot has been done to bring email up to speed with our modern lives. It remains much of what it was, decades ago, conceptually. However, in recent years, the amount of email we receive and the way we utilize our inbox has changed drastically. Almost everything we do today requires an email address to get it done. Heck, even my car dealership wants my email address when I take my vehicle in for an oil change. Work email, junk email, sale notifications, coupons, life’s special moments, action items, reminders, appointments, inquiries, financial statements, and so on – much of how we interact with the world starts in our inbox. Needless to say, a repurposed inbox that functions in unison with how we interact with its contents is long overdue. Enter MailBox.
Mailbox is an application from the creators of Orchestra, a popular GTD task management solution for iOS (and the web). With the momentum of a successful application behind them, and astute knowledge regarding the way people utilize their task management systems, the developers conceptualized Mailbox.
Though Orchestra was (is) a great application, admittedly, it wasn’t right for my needs. Mailbox, however, piqued my interest immediately. Email was something I had never really given much thought to. It had always looked and felt the same for me under the hood, regardless of the skin or platform it was masked by. What could possibly be done any differently? I was curious as to what was on the other side of traditional email management – what was outside the box? Following the link provided in the email, I signed up for future alerts. I was already a fan though I had no clue what to expect.
Fast forward 6 months. Mailbox is here, on the App Store, so now what? Well, if you are one of 700,00+ iOS users – you are waiting in line. You see, Mailbox generated a huge buzz before it was anywhere near ready for launch. Subsequently, the team needed a way to control access to the application in an effort to scale their servers properly – slowly – to ensure stability and reliability.1
To make this possible, they have created a ‘take a number’ process – one that I admire on many levels, mostly for its innovation. While the countdown to access is ingenious, it is also beyond frustrating depending upon where you are standing in that line. Just imagine walking up to the deli counter at your supermarket, taking your number – number 634,895 – only to glance at the “now serving’ number to realize you have 601,140 people ahead of you. My guess is, you’d leave and find your artisanal cheese elsewhere, or you’d come back another day. This is exactly what is happening with Mailbox right now 2. If you are one of the folks thinking of getting your cheese elsewhere, I beg of you, wait your turn – it’s worth it.
Our inbox is charged with the expectation of quick, convenient, correspondance with our contacts. Out of those communications often arise actionable items – items that most of us mark as unread as a reminder to take action. The trouble is, those items accumulate quickly and with that, so does anxiety and stress. Before long, you are faced with an overwhelming number of action items staring back at you from your inbox. ”Look at all of those promises you couldn’t keep with yourself.” At this point, it’s just easier to file them, delete them or never open your email client at all. Maybe if you ignore that stress, it will magically disappear. I presume that’s not working out well for you since you are equally as excited about Mailbox as I am.
The Mailbox developers understand how you have been using email until now, and they want to help you make a change for the better – become more productive and less stressed. Through the use of smart snooze alerts, intuitive drag-and-drop prioritization, clever gestures and a soothing color palette, Mailbox helps you achieve Inbox Zero and get things done. If you are looking for a more beautiful, well executed interface in an iOS email client, good luck – you’ll be hard pressed to find one. Mailbox receives my vote for the most beautiful email client, above even that of Sparrow and the official Gmail app. The UI is a major win.
Mark as read or delete – Without opening a message, you can swipe it to the right to have it marked as read and archived. As you are swiping, the message pane reveals a green backround with a white check mark to indicate the action performed. Swiping a bit slower – dragging the gesture out a bit and swiping to the edge of the screen – will delete the message, without marking it as read. This, I have a problem with. I strongly dislike seeing unread messages that I have clearly dealt with already, whether in my inbox or my trash can. Unread items communicate to my lizard-brain that I have missed an item that I must go back and process. I would love it, instead, if messages discarded from the inbox were also marked as read.
Snooze a message or send to a list – The creme de la creme, snoozing. Let’s pretend for a moment that you have received an email from your supervisor once you have left work for the day. You don’t want to lose track of the message, because it requires action, but you certainly have no desire process its content while you are spending time with your family. With Mailbox, it’s a win-win, you can satisfy both of these needs. From your inbox, swipe the message to the left and select an option from the snooze panel to have the message delivered to your inbox at another time that works best for you. Take a look at the full-size screenshot to see what options are available when setting a snooze alert. All snooze options can be customized to meet your needs.
Personally, this feature – snoozing messages – has already become a major part of my GTD workflow. I receive a lot of emails regarding projects that I can not always tend to as they come in. I simply defer them for a few hours – or days – and deal with them on my own terms. The trick, however, is using this feature in conjunction with your favorite GTD application and refraining from snoozing messages carelessly, just to reach Inbox Zero. If used properly, the snooze feature can greatly assist you in getting things done. Used recklessly, and you will have many actionable items falling through the cracks. Snooze wisely.
All gestures mentioned, can be applied in bulk by grabbing the handles at the bottom of your inbox and dragging them left or right. My biggest gripe here is that the action is applied to all items as opposed to having the ability to select individual items to apply the action to. For example, select 4 of 10 messages to archive, 3 go to a list and 3 deleted. This is a step backwards in my eyes as the standard Mail.app client as well as Sparrow already provide their users the ability to do so.
Mailbox makes Inbox Zero easier to obtain than any other email client on the market. It even has a little ‘easter egg’ for users who get there – accessible by tapping the inbox icon once there are zero messages in your inbox. Though fun and rewarding, avoid archiving and deleting items just to reach Inbox Zero. Done for the wrong reasons, you could find yourself even more stressed. Do some research on the proper way to manage your inbox – for the long term. There’s even a helpful video presentation by Merlin Mann, creator of Inbox Zero.
You can bypass the snooze option to add the message to a list by swiping to the far left of your screen. At its core, Mailbox strives to simplify email management, cut through distractions, and focus on actionable items. Thus, its default lists are sparse – “to buy, to read & to watch.” The trouble is, that doesn’t cut it for my needs. I have custom folders that must be included in my workflow, without question. Luckily, the fix is straight forward. If you don’t mind doing so, simply prepend the titles of your Gmail folders with “[Mailbox].” Give the Mailbox servers a few minutes to syncronize and they will appear in the app shortly after 3.
When opening a threaded message, initially, Mailbox presents you with the newest message front and center, all previous communications above it. Each message is separated from one another on its own “card.” While it works, it’s counter-intuitive for me and the way my brain works. I want my newest message on top, older messages below. It just feels a bit more natural and makes it easier to follow the lineage of a conversation. For that reason, I usually drill into a single message by tapping on it, and using the “page up, page down” buttons to thumb through the thread one message at a time. This offers a little more control and displays emails with the newest on top – just how I like it 4.
Composing an Email
No landscape support. This was a major gripe of mine with Sparrow when it launched – a feature they eventually added and I look for Mailbox to follow suit. It’s not necessary for reading messages but it is certainly preferred for composing. As of now, I am composing in Drafts for iPhone, then copying the contents to my clipboard and pasting into the body of my message in Mailbox. Other than that, composing is simple and straight forward. I will say I have noticed that Mailbox makes much quicker work of a message once the send button is tapped. It seems almost instantaneous. I realize that the message is actually standing in queue being sent a couple of seconds later, but I quite enjoy the quick reassurance Mailbox provides. Compose, send, close – no lingering. No wait time.
Mailbox requires that your emails be stored on their servers. This sounds a bit creepy, but it is necessary. Rest assured, they are not reading your email – rather storing them on their servers enables push notifications as well as their snooze feature. If this is a bit of fine print you are uncomfortable with, consider another client. Also, remember that Mailbox is mobile-only for the time being. If you access email from your desktop often, you may be looking for a smooth, consistent experience across devices. Right now, Mailbox is not offering that as an option.
Without bias, Mailbox is everything I had hoped it would be. It’s fast, reliable and fun to use. Push notifications work without a hitch and I have yet to have a snoozed message fail to return to my inbox on time. With plans to expand the list of email clients that Mailbox supports 5, I could definitely see a day when Mailbox is my only mobile client. Until then, I will have to continue using Apple’s solution in conjunction with Mailbox, because I have self-hosted email accounts, enterprise accounts and one outlook account in addition to the two Gmail accounts managed by Mailbox.
In four words, I am a convert. I love Mailbox and use it every day. Barring some catastrophe with my data or abandonment on further development, I see myself sticking with Mailbox for quite some time. Word is, they plan to follow a freemium model, so I am excited to see what features are offered for premium users. However, I wish the team would have charged for Mailbox upfront. I also realize how that may have seemed like an unjustifiable model at launch, given the wait time for access. Either way, I’m anxious to support the application and its development. In other words, “shut up and take my money.”
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- Despite their efforts, exactly one week following its launch, Mailbox has already suffered significant down time due to server-side issues. Here is what the team had to say
To their credit, the Mailbox team made light work of the issue and resolved it quickly. ↩
- Right now refers to press time – the time and date this article was published ↩
- Take caution when renaming, moving or deleting folders. Some actions can not be undone and some information can not be recovered once deleted. Make sure that whatever it is you are doing, that you take your time to understand the impact it will have on the structure and organization of your Gmail account. ↩
- Don’t be creepy. ↩
- Currently, Mailbox supports Gmail accounts only ↩