New Mailbox turns out to be too clever

23:10, Feb 18 2013

You're doing email wrong, but a new, much buzzed about, app is here to save the day. At least, that's the idea, but I'm not so sure.

Mailbox, an iPhone app for handling Gmail accounts built by productivity app creator Orchestra, was launched a week ago. Early reviews proclaimed it to be the life-preserver that would stop us drowning in an ocean of email.

Before it was even released, the app was making news due to its unusual launch plan: A reservation system to handle demand.

Head to, enter your mobile phone number and they'll text you a reservation code.

Download the app, enter the code and you'll see a screen showing your place in line, with how many are in front of you and - perhaps more fun - how many people are behind you.

Why do this?


Well, Mailbox routes all email through its own servers, rather than plugging into typical services like IMAP. This allows the company to send out push notifications when you receive new email (rather than you having to check it yourself) and enables the app's killer feature: Email "snoozing" (more on that later).

But this approach also puts the load on Mailbox's servers, so staggering the launch makes sure its infrastructure can handle the users.

If you're feeling more cynical, you might argue that creating a waiting list is also a good way to build buzz for your product by turning it into a hot commodity. Or it reminds users of a line at a post office, either way.

Given the service has already crashed once in just over a week of operation, it seems like the queue was a good move.

Eventually it will be open to all users, but not before the company improves its performance.

But once you gain access, the app has more to offer than a vague feeling of exclusiveness.

Before I talk about how Mailbox is different to other email apps, I should note how I use email.

I have two main email accounts, a regular Gmail account for personal email (about eight years old, embarrassingly named) and a work email account using Google Apps.

My approach to using both is the same: I never delete any email and use a combination of stars to manage what's important.

I've toyed with using labels and priority inboxes, but find that any organisational strategy is pointless unless I use it 100 per cent of the time, which is pretty much impossible.

On my iPhone I use the main Mail app for both email accounts (I find the unified inbox useful, but the app in general frustratingly limited) and the official Gmail app for my personal email.

The fact that Mailbox wants me to change my ways is immediately apparent on logging in.

The unread count on the app's icon defaults to displaying all of the emails in your inbox - in my case more than 14,000.

Turns out I should have been "archiving" all my read email over the years, instead of leaving it in the inbox.

Because I carelessly left it in the inbox, Mailbox wants me to know that I should archive that stuff.

Personally I don't see the difference, as having them in the inbox doesn't make me particularly stressed. It's only the unread count that fills me with dread.

Anyway, on to the app itself.

You interact with Mailbox by using a combination of swipes, which once explained in a short tutorial immediately feels natural.

Swiping left or right at varying distances either sends email to the archive, deletes it, sends it to predefined lists ("read-later", for example) or "snoozes" it for a certain amount of time.

"Snoozed" email will come back later on - either later in the day, tomorrow or some other point in the future.

The idea is that you'll rely on Mailbox to perform "triage" on your inbox, getting rid of the unimportant emails and scheduling the more important ones, or the ones you don't have time for, to a later date when you'll hopefully be able to give them a decent look.

In practice, this worked OK. But I must admit to being a little disappointed.

First of all, "snoozing" emails just did not work for me.

Like snoozing an alarm clock, it just puts off the inevitable pain of dealing with the email to a later date, and can often end up causing more hassle than if you'd just dealt with it immediately.

Effectively, you end up having to deal with a single email multiple times and that's just a waste of time.

Archiving email was pointless for my purposes, but could be a godsend to other people.

I can see the value in using labels. But as I said at the outset; I already know I won't use them 100 per cent of the time, so what's the point in labelling some?

You can also only deal with one email at a time, slowing you down when you're racing through a large backlog.

I can already tell I won't last long with this app.

Email is a funny thing. We all know we're doing it wrong, that we should be using special inboxes, labels, stars, archiving everything, being more productive, being more efficient.

But there's so much inertia built up, so many learned habits, that it's hard to make huge changes to workflow.

I think Mailbox will work for some people, I'm just not sure if I'm one of them.

It is also an open question how long the service will last, with an acquisition from a larger company like Google quite possible given the service's performance issues will only get worse with more users.

But hey, if you like it, please let me know. I promise I'll only snooze your email once or twice.