I started a new job two months ago. Before then, I was a full-time journalist. My personal/old work email inbox as of this writing is 59% full (with 6GB used). I read every email I got, or at the least scanned each to get the gist so I could file it away mentally. And thanks to Google’s excellent search system within Gmail, anytime I needed to find a specific email, I could just search for a few keywords (a name, a place, a person, whatever). The search is so good, and my memory is decent enough, to enable this sort of inbox to remain functional for me.

When I re-entered the corporate world (it’s a start-up, but that’s still light-years from working for yourself), my inbox didn’t grow nearly as fast, but it didn’t take long to have the same system occur. The company still uses Gmail for our email system, so I saw no problem with keeping old habits. But there’s a problem with that: my system of remembering to respond to emails was to either do it right when I read it (which was 1-2 seconds after it came in), or at some unknown future date/time when I remembered to check my “Starred” folder.

This method did not work well for me when the emails I received were no longer mostly press releases and pitches. When 9/10 emails are things to put on your to-do list, the game changes. The worst thing about coming back to a completely different style of workloads and workflows is finding that your tried and true system is no longer functional.

Mailbox, therefore, was a miracle. Not only was it released with the utmost perfect timing, I was only a few hundred emails in when I installed Mailbox on my iPhone. The app, free for iPhone (after a waiting period to get in), follows the philosophy “Zero Inbox” where each email is viewed as a task to complete. It was made popular in 2007 after an hour-long talk by Merlin Mann, and is used in varying degrees by productivity gurus. I never believed in it, but now I can’t live without it.

Which is exactly why Dropbox just bought the company this morning.

The app – built by Orchestra, which developed an identically titled task manager for the iPhone a year earlier – is a clean, crisp email inbox that looks almost like a traditional email client. The major difference is the top three buttons: a clock, an inbox, and a check mark. Each of these three relate to the three types of emails that users organize their inbox: later, currently in queue, and done. And the purpose of Mailbox is to keep your inbox down at zero, so each of these is geared towards that exact goal.

All emails can be swiped to from right to left for them to pop back into your inbox at a later date, including later today, tonight, tomorrow, the weekend, next week, in a month, someday, or at a specific date and time. A long right to left swipe selects a Gmail folder to drop the email in, again removing it from the inbox.

Swiping on an email from left to right marks it as done, and places the email into the archive (Gmail has an archive function that saves all emails but stores them out of the inbox). A long left to right swipe throws the email into the trash folder.

This system is extremely powerful because it makes a clear use of swipe functions that are memorable, easy to fix if a mistake is made, and very quick. I’ve used Mailbox now for three weeks and cringe when I open Apple’s Mail client, which is slightly more convenient when it comes to numerous email accounts, but far less intuitive and useful. I also continue using it because I have several non-Gmail accounts (Mailbox only works with Gmail), but after Mailbox Mail feels pitiful.

That may be the biggest draw of an app like Mailbox: it is designed so brilliantly and so elegantly that it changes the way we work. It certainly has for me: now my work Gmail inbox remains at zero regularly, and I’m also far more productive. The time I spent searching for emails previously, no matter how short, is now even less time. All actionable tasks in the form of emails are marked as complete or set for a specific date when I know I’ll have time. It isn’t a perfect system; the user still has to have diligence to complete tasks instead of pushing snooze constantly.

I’m also impressed with the option to easily insert pictures when writing emails, something that is still five years later a pain on the iPhone. Attachments aren’t exactly available, but the option to add pictures is better than the horrid copy-paste requirement in Mail.

The bigger problem with Mailbox is that the whole system revolves around Zero Inbox, which is to say that the app’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. For my personal account, with some 100K+ emails that sit in my inbox, it will take until the end of time to properly organize it unless I simply mass archive the whole thing. That may not be a bad idea, but not all users will want to go to such extremes to use an app. With a clean Gmail account, or one that has been kept fairly organized, Mailbox is excellent.

It’s also smartly organized with a left slider that has a list of major folders, such as Later, Lists, Archive, and Trash. A simple settings page allows users to select the snooze functions, but its limited to when the day starts and ends, when weekends start, and what “later today” and “someday” mean. Users can always select a specific date and time, and generally the options are helpful, but it’s also highly preferential based on how you work. I find that later today is always too soon or too late, tomorrow is always too early, this evening is just snoozed, and next week means first thing monday morning instead of a week from today.

Additional neat functions include batch swiping, which is unfortunately limited to all emails instead of a selectable number; drag and drop emails to reorder like you would a task list; and a really swank individual email view, which shows the full email thread plus all of the options in simple icon form.

The biggest competition to Mailbox is Taskbox, a very different take on making your inbox a task list. Taskbox follows the same strategy with swipe functions and a list view, but it requires the user to first organize the inbox into actionable tasks and read (archived) emails, then to switch to the task list and work from there. This is another step that Mailbox completely bypasses with simpler design. Taskbox is also a $3 app with a few more features, like different views and pictures for email recipients, but it doesn’t match the elegant sophistication that Mailbox provides.

Mailbox still has a waiting period for new users to join, and for multiple iOS device owners, each individual device has to wait in line to join. The wait time can be awhile, but once you’re in, Mailbox is an app you won’t be able to stop using. And it’ll make you use your iPhone for email much more than a web browser. Which, in many ways, is the best and scariest thing that it could do.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★★½

Excellent

Bottom Line: It’s so good I can’t use Gmail normally anymore. You can get over waiting for it.

Pros:

  • An excellent organizational tool for email
  • Swipe functionality is the best there is
  • Elegant, flawless design
  • Completely free!

Cons:

  • All users have to wait to get it, and it’s a long wait line
  • Timing on snooze functions are well designed but could be better
  • If your inbox is massive, using Mailbox is going to be a big challenge



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.