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Mailbox App Review: Return to Sender

Wed, 02/13/2013 - 5:23pm
Andrew Berg

As much as it pains me to say it, the new iOS app, Mailbox from Orchestra, will not revolutionize email as we know it. In fact, it’s only a hair better than the Gmail experience it aims to improve.

I've had about a week to play around with Mailbox, and I have to say that I am absolutely dumbfounded by the hype surrounding what is essentially an overlay for Google's email client. Sure, Mailbox has some simplified gestures for sorting through your email, but the idea that it will somehow ease the pain of going through mountains of email, or as advertised, achieve "Inbox zero. Daily.” Please. 

First of all, I’ll concede that Mailbox is perhaps an improvement for those who use Gmail and only Gmail. Otherwise Mailbox is yet an additional app hanging out on your homescreen. While those who do use only Gmail might prefer Mailbox's interface to Google's dedicated iOS app, they're still going to need Apple's native email client, or some alternative, for checking other accounts such as Yahoo! or Exchange. 

I personally have five email accounts, and Apple's unified Inbox allows me to view Gmail, Yahoo!, and Exchange accounts in one spot, or separately. Mailbox on the other hand only allows you to view and sort through your Gmail account(s). 

So to be clear, Mailbox should be viewed as an app that aims to improve on the Gmail experience, not email overall, or even the Apple email experience. It should be considered within that context. That said, the features of Mailbox aren't entirely useless. The swiping gestures (two to the right, two to the left) allow you to delete, archive, save to a list or cache for reading at times in the future (tomorrow, next week etc.). 

If indeed this is an app aimed at evolving email to some kind of ultra-simple task, the gestures for completing the tasks mentioned above are not necessarily all that easy to master. As it turns out, short and long swipe gestures are distinguished by a fine line, resulting in some email getting mistakenly trashed or archived. 

I liked the Mailbox feature that allows users to short swipe to the left and archive things according to when you want to read and deal with them. For instance, a time sensitive email might be thrown in the ‘Later Today’ bin, while renewing your subscription to Reader’s Digest might be relegated to the ‘Next Week’ bin. However, the mean truth behind this seemingly ingenious simplification of email is that you still have to decide when you’re going to deal with every piece of mail. Procrastinators are still going to take an hour going through their Inbox, while prolonging the inevitable by placing each item into various holding areas. 

Another feature that I liked was Mailbox’s integration with Apple’s native ‘Notes’ app. Write a note in Notes and that note is immediately archived in your Gmail account. Pretty handy if you’re wanting to write out a quick grocery list and then share it with others. 

I’ve never been a huge fan of Google’s Gmail interface, so I have to say that Mailbox is an improvement over that application. However, for those who jockey back and forth between accounts from different providers, or depend more on a Yahoo! or Exchange accounts, I’m guessing you’ll find little use for this application. I’ll reiterate my position that you might as well stick with Apple’s unified Inbox. 

It didn’t hurt that Mailbox started getting buzz in the middle of Apple’s Maps fiasco. It’s no secret that OTT applications are slowly improving upon Apple’s native applications. From messaging to FaceTime to mail, users are looking elsewhere for software that will better accomplish the iPhone’s core functions. Mailbox is definitely part of that trend, but in this case, it’s improving on an application that is already considered OTT in the iOS world. 

In a blog post this week, my colleague Ben Munson commented on the effectiveness of Mailbox's marketing ploy, which is essentially to have everyone who signs up wait in an increasingly long line, thus generating the expectation that if this many people are waiting, it must be great. You can be sure other developers will be learning from this lesson, so for better or worse, it’s a good bet that we’ll be waiting for the next big thing, whether it’s about keeping those servers running smoothly or not.

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