• 02.07.13

Mailbox: Ideo And Apple Alums Reinvent Mobile Email

A new app’s triage-based approach to email management on the phone could change your relationship with your inbox forever–but only if you let it.

Mailbox: Ideo And Apple Alums Reinvent Mobile Email

Most apps, save maybe a particular few involving ballistic birds, arrive in the App Stores with little fanfare. To download Mailbox, though, you’ll need to have placed a reservation at some point in the last few weeks. Seriously.


Such is the anticipation surrounding the free app, which teased its swipe-based email sorting functionality in a short video last month (welcome to the era of the App Trailer), promising to forever change the way we interact with email on the go. The basic idea is that for today’s users, the elusive state of digital nirvana we refer to as “inbox zero” has become nearly impossible to attain, so besieged are we by emails that pile up, whether we’re ready for them or not. And until now, mobile apps haven’t offered users much in the way of dealing with that daily onslaught. Mailbox tries to solve that with two powerful tools: swipe and snooze.

The main screen for Mailbox, which currently requires a Gmail account to use, doesn’t look much different from Apple’s stock app–it’s your standard reverse-chronological list of emails. But the app does give you a somewhat radical new way to interact with those emails. Tapping a message still opens it up, but the magic happens when you drag your finger across it. A short swipe to the right files it in your archive; a longer swipe in that direction sends it to the trash. A long swipe to the left lets you drop it in a more specific folder–“To Watch” and “To Read” are defaults–and a short leftward swipe triggers something new entirely, basically a snooze button for that particular email. When evoked, the message vanishes from your inbox, reappearing automatically at a time you specify, which could be later that day, tomorrow morning, in a month, or on a specific date.

Gentry Underwood, CEO of Orchestra, the company behind Mailbox, says that those tools were developed around a few specific insights. Working with Scott Cannon, who was then the team leader for the iPad over at Apple, Underwood’s biggest revelation was that a good mobile inbox isn’t simply a smaller version of the one we use on our desktop. “People don’t want to do the same things on their phone that they’re doing at their desk,” he says. As Underwood sees it, most have come to treat their inboxes as eternally replenishing to-do lists. And while you can’t always get things done on your phone, you can get them more organized.

“The big a-ha was discovering that the primary-use case of email on the phone was really triage,” he explains. “It’s taking those couple of minutes that you have to go through your mail and trying to look at what’s new that you need to worry about–and what you don’t need to worry about.”

If you’re currently drowning in emails, this might seem like just the life line you’ve been hoping for. Underwood, who served at Ideo for four years until 2010, acknowledges that email on our phones has been so clunky for so long that at this point, everyone has their own weird workarounds in place–systems that are imperfect, sure, but ones we’ve grown accustomed to nonetheless. So when Mailbox comes along and tries to whip you into shape, dangling the carrot of inbox zero in front of you and making you do something with every incoming message to reach it, the whole thing can feel a bit like a pushy personal trainer. You know you’d probably be better off in the long run if you listened to them, but changing your old bad habits is never easy.

Granted, Mailbox doesn’t try to obliterate those habits so much as wean you off them. It doesn’t mess with whatever folders and labels you might currently have set up in Gmail, for example, it just does its own thing beside them. And just as the first workout is always the hardest, after you get used to Mailbox’s strange new world of sort-by-swipe, the interaction stops being a chore and turns into something you look forward to. “There are some trade-offs there,” Underwood acknowledges. A four-way swipe isn’t as intuitive as a single one. But once you get the hang of it, the speed is intoxicating.


Still, you wonder if that magic might not reveal itself to people who aren’t freaking out about their inboxes all the time in the first place. The speed only really comes into play when you have several dozen unread emails to plow through. And for some, I imagine, sorting just won’t be worth the trouble. If you’re getting by fine just scanning emails on your phone and addressing them when and where you can, forcing yourself to scrupulously file every new email is adding friction to the experience, not eliminating it.

Underwood says that the app launching today is just the beginning. There are plans for versions for iPad and Android, and Underwood thinks a Mailbox desktop client is inevitable at some point down the line. His company’s also keeping an eye on that golden near-future when your inbox simply sorts itself. “The more you use the system, the smarter we can be about doing things for you,” he says.

Insofar as managing the whole mess ourselves, though, Mailbox is an intriguing start. Its broader philosophy on email may not be for everyone, but on the level of interaction, it gets two big things perfectly right. One, that there’s something uniquely satisfying about the simple act of crossing an item off a to-do list (or in this case, swiping it off). And two, that there are times when you just want the opposite but equally satisfying option of hitting snooze.

See more, and put your name on the list, on the Mailbox site.