If you're looking for alternative mail clients to Apple's standard Mail app on iOS there aren't many viable options. Besides the Gmail app and Sparrow, a 3rd-party app that was recently bought by Google there wasn't anything worth using if Mail wasn't doing it for you. When Mailbox was first announced in December, I wasn't quite sure what it was exactly, but I knew it was beautiful and I wanted it. I knew it was an email client, but I didn't realize what it was trying to accomplish. Orchestra, the developers of Mailbox, set out to bring the organization of "to-do list" into the DNA of traditional email. What they ended up with was a slick, visually appealing app that encourages you to keep your inbox clean by making it easy to deal with your emails instead of letting them pile up.
Before I get into how the app works, lets get out the way who can't use Mailbox (as or writing). For now, Mailbox only works with Gmail accounts on iPhones. If you use any other email service (Yahoo, Live, Exchange) or Android or Windows Phone, you're out of luck. But don't fret, the company says there will be Android, iPad and desktop versions in the future. Another major blow for some is that there is no support for existing labels created in Gmail. This may be the biggest caveat for some pro-Gmail users if you've passed the first two obstacles. If you're the type of person that is very organized in Gmail and have lots of labels and emails neatly stored in them then this probably isn't the app for you. However if you are like myself and have thousands of emails opened and unopened, with little to no order or labels then this app is a God send. Mailbox literally feels like email bootcamp. With a little work and a lot of getting used to how Mailbox wants you to treat email you too can have an empty inbox.
Hurry Up And Wait
At the moment, Mailbox is slowly letting users in a few thousand an hour which is supposed to exponentially increase as time goes on. As of last night there were close to 800,000 people waiting to get into the app. If you download it now you'll probably have a least a week or so before you actually get to use it. (If interested, download it anyway just to get in line) The reason why they're trickling in users is so that they can make sure the app and email is reliable for those using it and they can appropriately scale it to accommodate all of the users. This is not a new strategy for product roll outs. Gmail and Pinterest are just a couple of examples of software that slowly scaled their user base by making it invite only. The brilliance of Mailbox's strategy was they put the counter on the app that shows how many people are in front of you and behind you while the numbers move in real time. It's an incredibly savvy feature that's somewhat addicting. I found myself checking my place in line multiple times per day and even talking about it on Twitter. In fact I seen tons of people tweeting and posting pictures of their number in line on Instagram. Hats off to whoever thought of gamifying waiting in line. They turned what most would consider a negative and turned it into a positive. Brilliant marketing.
Once you finally get access to the app you'll be prompted to add a Gmail account. I believe the limit is five accounts. I've added three without any problems. As your emails are downloading you're prompted with a tutorial on how to use the app. The premise is that there are 4 primary functions of the app:
Archiving - These are emails that you want to keep but don't want in your inbox. They can be seen in the Archive tab and are saved in the All Email list in Gmail.
Deleting - This is (obviously) puts email in the trash
Later - This is the main feature of Mailbox that allows you to "snooze" an email to appear later. You're given multiple options, later in the day, tomorrow, the weekend, next month or a custom time.
Adding To List (Mailbox list) - Mailbox has preset lists that will also appear in Gmail on the web like: To Read, To Watch, To Buy inside a list titled "Mailbox". Custom list are also able to be created. Note: You can't use pre-existing list in Gmail
Each of these functions require a simple gesture to execute said function. For instance Archiving and Deleting are done by wiping the email from left to right. A short swipe to the right will show a green bar as the email is moved to the right to Archive. To delete the user just has to swipe farther to the right and hold for a beat and it will turn orange, indicating you're going to delete the email. Sending email to Later or adding to a List work the same but in the opposite direction. Short swipe to the left shows a yellow bar to indicate Later (then an overlay appears with options), full swipe and hold shows brown bar to place in a list. The gestures are extremely easy and intuitive after a couple of tries. In fact, the animations are so smooth it's actually kind of *gasp* fun to fling your emails to their proper destinations. I began to approach my Inbox almost like a game, a challenge to get it to zero. Of course Mailbox encourages this by placing a little visual treat for you when you reach an empty inbox. There is a different image of the day, everyday that acts as an incentive to clean out your inbox. Whenever I go to read email I can never just take action on one email. I swipe away at 3-4 before I catch myself and remember I have other things to do besides "killing" email. The combination of beautiful interface, slick animations and goal for "winning" the battle of the inbox turns productivity into a game.
Tapping the tab on the upper-left hand corner slides your mail to the right side to expose all of your mailboxes (accounts), as well as your Later, List, Archive and Trash folders. There is also a settings menu that lets you get a bit deeper with customizations of Lists, snooze parameters, adding additional accounts and notifications. Emails themselves are handled more like text messages and make them much easier to navigate through, especially in multi-threaded conversations. Tapping on one of the "chat bubbles" opens the entire email.
Changing the way people use email is not an easy task but it is a noble one. Especially when it's in the name productivity. I was willing to go down the road Mailbox wanted to take me and I (and my inbox) are better for it. I completely understand why others may not want to reconfigure their entire way of dealing with email for a phone app but if you're willing to let go of the reigns I believe Mailbox could help more than hurt most people's situation. Because I tend to read and watch tons of content a day, being able to quickly through emails into Read/Watch bins for me to sift through later is bliss. Using Mailbox's UI for a few days makes me wish Orchestra would design a Twitter client next. Sliding emails to their desired cubby holes never felt so satisfying. Mailbox may lack some advanced features that power users will scoff at but most are by design. Mailbox not so gently nudges you to handle mail their way, and for me I'm a lot better for it.