Hold the Line
So the line’s the thing, right? And now you’re thinking about implementing a line for your own new app.
I suggest that you seriously consider this option before proceeding. Think about what a Mailbox-like line means for your users, and what you’ll get and give up if you use a line instead of a more traditional beta signup process.
The biggest decision point is to make sure that throttling inbound new users is important, and not just show. Mail apps, in particular, are special: Each new user generates a huge spike in utilization as the service reads in their existing email. Nobody can realistically expect a startup to process a million GMail archives all at once. If that’s what you’re doing (or something similar, like reading in users’ Twitter feeds), you do need a way to keep your load manageable as you grow, and a system that lets users in one at a time might keep you from failing the moment you launch.
Other apps, where new users start as data newborns, with empty accounts, are much less likely to knock over a server on startup. So don’t fake it. If each new user only adds a touch of load, don’t pretend you’re moving heaven and earth for them.
Here are some more pros and cons of lines.
The big Con: You will get slammed in the App Store
People don’t like downloading an app only to be told they can’t use it. You’re going to annoy a lot of users. A lot. In a competitive market, your low, one-star rating might hurt.
Sort of a Pro: You control when your App Store ratings reset
When you release a major upgrade for your app, the App Store ratings start over. So once you’re done with the line, release a new version to wipe out all those one-star reviews.
Pro or Con, depending: It’s transparent
If you have a massively popular app, like Mailbox, it can be a big marketing coup to say that there are 800,000 people in line to get the app after only a few mentions in the tech blogs. It also looks good if you’re blasting through invites at several spots a second. But if your line gets stuck for days or moves slowly, and there are only a few thousand people in the line and the user doesn’t feel he or she is getting any closer to the front, it can dampen enthusiasm for the product.
Con: You can’t tell people how long the line will be
If you could tell new users when they’ll be admitted to your app, then you’d just tell them, right? The idea of using a software line is that you can slow it town, speed it up, or stop it altogether if you need to as your user base grows and you learn how your service handles the load. That means that there’s no way to give users a Disneyland-like estimate on their time to reach the end of the line. That can be frustrating.
Pro: Believe it or not, you can get away with this now
Before Mailbox, there was no way a small developer could have gotten a non-functional app through Apple. And Mailbox, for users coming in now, is just that: It’s a number on a screen that says, “You’re late, sucker.” But the team at Mailbox, I hear, worked their connections with Apple to get approval for this new type of in-app velvet rope. So now you can do the same thing, too.
But only do it if you desperately need to, and be aware of the numerous ramifications of this concept.
Don’t add a line to you app just to look cool. You’re not running a nightclub. But if you have a mobile app that you expect will have scaling issues, then a line can be a good way to throttle users and keep them informed at the same time. Just don’t forget to update your app to reset those awful ratings you’re going to get.
Mailbox Stops the Email Bleeding (Opportunity Notes)
The Thinking Behind Mailbox’s 800,000-Person Waiting List (Fast Company)
How Long Is The Mailbox Line? (Waxy)
Flipboard’s service collapses on iPhone app launch (ComputerWorld, 2011)
LaunchRock sets up site launch placeholders (CNET News, 2011)
GMail only Shed its “Beta” Tag After Five Years (NY Times, 2009)
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