Mailbox Stops the Email Bleeding
I have replaced the default email client on my iPhone with a new app that does less, and it’s made me a happier person.
The new app is — no surprise — Mailbox, the darling of the tech press (see Further Reading, below). Mailbox is perhaps the first iPhone email app to match the old Blackberry email app as workable product for doing email triage on a tiny device on which you steal moments when you’re bored in a meeting.
I’m not saying other other email apps don’t let you do this, but none seem to be as dialed in to the mobile experience as Mailbox. None seem to say, as Mailbox does, This is where you stop the bleeding. For major surgery, fire up your real computer.
What are the elements of triage, as it relates to email? Mailbox has broken it down into three elements.
Probably the most productive thing you can do on a smartphone email client is clear out the garbage. Not only should it be easy (which it is, in Mailbox), but spiking messages is just about the most intellectual activity a distracted mobile user can be expected to do. Mailbox has a simple and fast way to archive or delete messages. It’s one press faster than the iPhone’s native delete function, and that makes a difference.
Mailbox shares some genetics with to-do apps. One key activity in the product is the capability to boomerang messages back to you for later (see also the unrelated GMail plug-in, Boomerang). Know you’ll want to answer a message when you’re at your desk? One swipe and a tap, and it’s gone until the time you specify (like “This Evening,” or “Tomorrow,” or “In a month.”) With this feature, you can stack up your email to-dos for the times you think you’ll be able to deal with them. It lets you control your email panic. And you won’t lose anything. As Mailbox creator Gentry Underwood told me,” Everthing will come back. Just not all at once.” (Feature request: How about an option for “After my next meeting,” since the app should have access to my phone’s calendar?)
Mailbox also lets you direct messages to a few different lists, like “To read,” and “To buy.” You can also set up your own lists.
Again, it’s all about getting the patients out of the ER — your inbox — and into the clinics they should be treated in.
Under the hood, Mailbox is not a full email client like most apps. It doesn’t connect to email servers and initiate the IMAP protocols to retrieve mail. That would be slow. Instead, Mailbox on a phone communicates only with Mailbox’s own servers, and those servers contact the email machines (Google’s only, so far) on users’ behalves. The Mailbox protocols are fast and compressed.
The downside is that Mailbox’s own infrastructure is a single point of failure and a potential bottleneck. That’s a risk Underwood told me he’s willing to take (in fact, Mailbox has already had at least one outage).
The Opera Mini browser, by the way, works the same way: Opera’s servers retrieve Web content for the Opera Mini app and then send it, compressed and formatted for mobiles, direct to the devices.
These three main concepts work for Mailbox and its users. Mailbox doesn’t pretend to be a desktop app. You cannot do a lot of heavy organization in the app. You can’t set up complex filters. You won’t be writing super-long emails. But you can get email busywork handled on your smartphone more quickly, leaving the heavy lifting for a time when you can comfortably settle into your office chair and really focus.
So what are the elements of triage in your mobile app? What can you do to make your app as fast as possible for the user who only has 20 seconds to spend in it? How can you offload work from your mobile app to a server somewhere else or to your user in another setting?
A smartphone may be as powerful as a full desktop computer, but your users, when they are engaged with a mobile app, are much less capable than they would be on a proper computer. They have less focus, less time, and less patience. There’s no shame in creating an app that respects their diminished capacity when they’re mobile. As long as you also let them dig in to real work when they are not.
Mailbox: Swipe Your Way to a Clutter-Free Inbox (All Things D)
Mailbox Review: Your Bad Email Redemption (Gizmodo)
Is Mailbox the Best Email App for iPhone Yet? (Mashable)
Mailbox for iPhone: a next-generation email app inspired by Sparrow and Clear (The Verge)
There May Still Be Life in the Email Business (Opportunity Notes)
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