To the despair of its many fans, Mailbox is shutting down on February 26, 2016. Always ahead of its time, Mailbox announces its own death several months in advance. It is therefore only appropriate that it gets an early obituary as well. This one is by a true fan.
In a mere coincidence, and only a few weeks after the official announcement that Mailbox is shutting down, David Bowie released a new album (Blackstar), only to die of cancer a few days later. It became apparent that Bowie had designed his own death. Writing songs and recording a video that obviously, at least in hindsight, spoke about his struggle with death.
For those of us who are both Bowie and Mailbox fans, this was too much. The similarities between Mailbox and David Bowie are many and don’t stop at them both designing their own passing. If a comparison between an app and a rock legend may be excused, they both re-invented their respective area. They both attracted very dedicated fans. They both inspired lots of wannabes and copy cats. They both had their quirks. They both knew design and appearances are crucial to success. They also knew the power of good storytelling.
Unfortunately, they both passed away too early as well.
The fan in me sighs, starts playing Ziggy Stardust (still his best album) on Spotify, and reflects on the short but important history of Mailbox and what Mailbox has meant to me.
I still remember the day I first saw the Mailbox movie clip. It was a surprisingly sunny day in late autumn of 2012. The lovely tune setting exactly the right mood. The sunshine. The nature. The nice feel of the swipe movement for getting rid of emails. The feeling of bliss after having emptied the inbox, and to become one with nature once again. I watched the clip several times in a row, enjoying every moment of it.
The Mailbox movie clip fast became a success and got several hundred thousand views the first day of its launch. Apparently, the concept of an empty inbox was a powerful one, which people could relate to, and worked well as central theme of the movie. Not to mention the tagline: “Put email in its place.” This is one of the best taglines I have ever seen. It’s clever, to the point, has attitude, and is funny at the same time.
With a clever sign up queue system, Mailbox really made the most of the buzz created by the movie. The queue system let you see not only your place in the queue, but how many people were behind you. For the early adopters, this was a verification that they were really on to something cool. Telling their friends about Mailbox, and showing their early place in the queue would allow them to shine, and work as a proof of them being quick to pick up new technology. Just what early adopters want.
The concept of snoozing an email felt novel, and had the design to make it cool: the swipe. Swiping an email in the inbox, with different effects depending on the direction and how far you swiped it. That was indeed a novel interaction technique. And it felt just right. With a single swipe movement, you could easily mark an email as done, delete it, or, wait for it, snooze it. There was also a list concept where emails could be added to a list, e.g. a shopping list. But that feature never rocked my boat.
The snooze itself merits further elaboration. Was Mailbox truly the first email app to introduce the snooze feature? I cannot say for certain, but it certainly was the first app to make a big fuzz about it. I have heard Googlers talking about the snooze feature being in alpha or beta in gmail years before Mailbox launched. Whether or not that is true, it took Google several years before they launched Inbox by Google. A new product, apparently aimed at killing Mailbox. When Google gets out of its way to get you, you know you are on to something special. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here.
The snooze function basically had three steps:
Step 1. Activating a snooze on an email.
Step 2. Deciding when to get it back, and
Step 3. Having the email re-appear in the inbox at the specified time.
The clever thing here, apart from the swipe interface, was to take the burden of picking a date and time for the email to re-appear, away from the user. It felt so nice not having to decide this. By just offering quick options like “Later Today”, “Tomorrow”, and “This weekend”, I could relax, knowing that the email would return, at roughly the right time. Of course, there was the possibility of specifying an exact date, but I never really made use of that.
Following the movie launch, there was a period of, one must assume, intense software development, as the Mailbox team prepared the iPhone app, and put mechanisms in place to make the software scale. At that time, there was no gmail API, and let’s face it, IMAP does not allow you to build solutions that are fast enough, without intermittent storage. Thus, Mailbox was forced to set up its own cloud solution for storing users’ emails on its own servers. And with cloud solutions, you must be able to scale gracefully as the traffic increases. This scalability challenge was the real reason behind the queue system. In early February 2013, Mailbox blogged about how they were rolling out the Mailbox app to the people on the waiting list, and illustrating it with an exponential curve.
Of course, there were some sync issues early on, but from an outsider’s perspective, everything seemed to run smoothly. The results from the first week after launch were impressive. More than 50 million emails delivered. And more importantly, Mailbox claimed to have helped people reach Inbox zero, a state with an empty inbox, 400.000 times.
Mailbox + Dropbox
At the time, handling attachments to emails on the iPhone was a mess, if at all possible. The Mailbox team wanted create a solution to this problem, by way of interfacing with Dropbox. Thus, Dropbox was contacted and discussions commenced.
On March 15, 2013, a mere 37 days after the app launched, the Mailbox team announced that they were on a roll, and had been acquired by Dropbox. The sum of the purchase reported in the press was $100 Million, although Gentry Underwood, one of the founders, declined to confirm the amount when asked by Business Insider’s Alyson Shontell.
The Mailbox team joined Dropbox, and began working on an Android version of the app, and later a Mac version. However, the app itself saw little development over the next couple of years, and the once so incredibly fresh user interface started to look dated when compared to the new kids on the block, such as Inbox by Google. One must assume that users started to drop off, and Dropbox eventually took the decision to put Mailbox to rest.
On a more personal level, during the spring of 2013 I became obsessed with Mailbox and its quick success. The effect of idols, it seems, can be very powerful. After seeing Mick Jagger walking away with a lovely girl, after a Stones concert, Steven Tyler famously proclaimed: “I want some of that too,” and founded the rock band Aerosmith. In similar vein, after following the progress and success of Mailbox and its founders with a combination of awe and disbelief, I felt like Steve Tyler, and told myself: *“I want some of that to.”*
From that moment on, I decided to become an entrepreneur.
Thank you and goodbye
Nothing lasts forever. Big thanks to Gentry Underwood and all the others in the Mailbox team. Thanks also to Drew Houston and the others at Dropbox who got involved early on and provided Mailbox with a solid foundation and a great solution for attachments on the iPhone.
So long Mailbox. May you rest in peace. Or, more appropriately, may you snooze in peace!
PS: What are the alternatives for Mailbox?
We have to face the fact that Mailbox is shutting down, and that it’s time to move on. But what are the alternatives to the Mailbox app? An analysis by John Brandon at Inc indicated that a reason for the Mailbox shutdown was that Mailbox was not a holistic solution to the communication problem. Apparently, you can only go so far with “just a snooze function.” Brandon pointed at Dropbox’s upcoming Paper product, which is essentially intended to be a Google Docs killer.
I personally believe that the future of email apps lies in integration with other communication media and task management systems. The table below illustrates some alternatives to the Mailbox app. I hope you’ll find what you’re looking for!