Does mobile email have room for innovation? After all, most smartphone email apps are little more than touch-friendly versions of an all-too familiar email experience. Orchestra thinks there is room. The company’s new app, Mailbox, reframes mobile email as a to-do list. Does it hit the right marks? Read on, as we review Mailbox app for iPhone.
Objective: Inbox Zero
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Fifteen years ago, few people struggled with inbox clutter. Email was still relatively new (at least to the general population), and we only sent them when sitting down at a PC. Today social networks, companies’ subscription lists, and smartphones have many of our inboxes drowning.
This is the primary problem that Mailbox solves. Its angle? Archive emails you’re finished with, and set reminders for (“snooze”) emails you want to put off for later. It also lets you add emails to lists (like “to buy,” “to read,” and “to watch”).
Does it achieve its objective? Yes. I easily decluttered an inbox with thousands of old conversations. But Mailbox's genius is as much about the journey as it is the result.
Inbox zero is an impressive result, but Mailbox’s innovation is equally about navigation. To archive, swipe a message to the right. To delete, swipe longer in that direction. Create reminders and lists by swiping similarly to the left.
The direction you swipe is intuitive and easy-to-remember, as it matches the direction of the three navigation tabs at the top of the main screen. Snoozed on the left, archived on the right, and inbox in the center.
Mailbox’s navigation is a pleasure to use. I suspect it will remain so even after the novelty wears off, because it’s also practical. It makes organizing your inbox a piece of cake.
An email app, however, is more than organizational tools. Here Mailbox also delivers, with a clean, attractive layout for email threads.
Mailbox’s thread layout borrows from Gmail's web interface, with a hint of SMS apps. Older emails in the thread sit directly above your reply, so you can easily refer to the conversation while typing.
The older emails are abbreviated when necessary, to provide a clean look. You can easily tap on a mesage to expand.
Push! (and its tradeoffs)
Unlike Sparrow for iPhone, Mailbox provides full push notification support. This was a smart move, and it works as advertised. But it also has tradeoffs.
First, you’ll need to trust Orchestra with full access to your Gmail account. I didn’t hesitate, as they strike me as an ambitious startup with no intentions of exploiting user privacy. Still, not everyone will feel the same way.
The far bigger drawback is that, at least initially, the company can only handle so many users on its servers.
Hence, Orchestra is rolling out access to the app via a reservation system. So, unless you signed up months ago, you probably have thousands of people waiting in front of you.
We could debate all day about whether the reservation system is a good idea. But that’s only Orchestra’s decision, and it’s already been made. By releasing the app now, the company gets media exposure and customer awareness, which (I presume) could lead to additional funding to help with the rollout.
Initially, customers with jailbroken iPhones (and the right know-how) could "cut in line" and use the app without a reservation. This led us to believe that Orchestra's servers would take a beating, and unfairly hurt customers patiently waiting in line. Orchestra, though, quickly patched the app with server-end authentication.
At least for now, the system appears to be frustrating, but fair.
Right now, Mailbox only supports Gmail (including multiple accounts). Orchestra promises additional email providers down the road, but – for now – Hotmail, Yahoo, iCloud, and other email users are out of luck.
There is also no iPad or Android version. Orchestra said an iPad app is in the works. They didn't mention Android, but if the app is a success, we’d expect to see the company eventually expand its reach.
Despite the annoying reservation system, Mailbox is the best iPhone email app I’ve used. It sits at the crossroads of function, simplicity, and beauty. It’s good enough that you might feel dissatisfied when you return to your old email app.
Mailbox is free and available now in the App Store ... but you’ll probably have to wait before you can use it.
App Store: MailboxView gallery - 5 images