Mailbox App

I’m pretty excited about mailbox. I don’t want to wade in with my opinion about whether Google will buy the company in one year, or how quickly mailbox will take over the world.

What I do want to talk about is how Mailbox will (hopefully) affect email.

Mailbox and Email

I’ve had an email address since I was about 10. It was a hotmail address that I ditched when I was invited to join Gmail by my equally geeky friend. [1] I’ve had the same email address ever since.

Over time I’ve grown to assume everyone is enjoying the features that Gmail offers. To me, email features used to be things like flashy signatures and HTML, but these days I really don’t care about those things. What I love about Gmail is the features it has that help get email out of your way, and get things done. It took me a long time to realise this, but the best feature of Gmail is the ‘all mail’ or ‘archive’ coupled with powerful search.

Mailbox's inbox zero screen. We'll be seeing a lot of similar pictures attached to tweets in the next few months!

Mailbox's inbox zero screen. We'll be seeing a lot of similar pictures attached to tweets in the next few months!

The mailbox app is all about archiving things and removing them from your inbox when you’re done. This is already something that Gmail does - mailbox just highlights it to a whole lot of people who are in the habit of leaving everything in their inbox (in my experience, that’s just about everyone).

The main feature I’m so excited about is the ability to send something away to come back again in the future. Right now my inbox has about 15 emails in it because I archive things when I’m done. The problem has been when there are emails that I have to reply to or need to do some action I can’t get to right now - it just sits in my inbox. I’ve tried an ‘Action’ label, but that led nowhere. Mailbox solves that problem, so long as it doesn’t mean the only place I can process email is my phone.

Nested folders vs. Labels

Another feature of Gmail is the label system. On the surface, labels in Gmail look just like nested folders. However, there is a key difference - the labels don’t affect where the message is stored. They are simply a form of meta data (or a label!) on the email that is stored in the ‘all mail’ or ‘archive’ folder. That means that if you use Gmail, whether you know it or not, ALL of your email is stored in a single folder - the ‘all mail’ folder. When you look at labels, you are looking at a collection of emails stored in the ‘all mail’ folder with that label.

This is what happens in the search bar when you click on a label. This is my "Facebook" label, nested under my "Social Networking" label. Click for a larger image.

This is how, over the years, Gmail has been slowly training me to stop relying on nested folders. Sure, I might still think I’m looking at nested folders, but without even realising it was happening I stopped clicking on the labels on the left side of the interface and relied on the search bar to find things. Out of habit, I still label things, but I am increasingly finding it unecessary.

Mailbox is likely to stop me using labels completely. And that’s a good thing. Doing email shouldn’t have to be about spending time searching through nested folders, or wading through an unweildy inbox with 5000 emails.

The Inbox

Many people use their inboxes as a holding place for things. An inbox full of things and a complex nested folder system you have to spend ages looking through[2] can be a massive waste of time. An inbox is a great productivity tool if it is used as an inbox - a place where stuff comes in and is held until you process it to work out what to do with it. It’s not a good place to keep stuff that you already know what you have to do, but don’t have anywhere else to put because you are then compelled to keep working out what to do with it every time you look at your inbox.

The most exciting thing about Mailbox is that it furthers what Gmail has been quietly doing for years - changing how people think about email. I keep checking whether my number is up in the reservation system is because I’m excited to see if Mailbox can help me find a place for those emails that I know what to do with, but can’t do yet.

But where I think Mailbox will be a game changer is if it can manage to change how people think about their inboxes - especially when it opens up to people who are using email services other than Gmail. It’ll be easy enough for Gmail users to adapt to the ‘new’ way of thinking, because it has been inherent in Gmail for years, albiet hidden in a way that looks a lot like the old nested folder system.





  1. Remember when you had to be invited by someone who already had Gmail to join? It was the way Google chose to scale the release of its services back then. I doubt whether the the same approach would have worked for Mailbox now - this reservation system is probably the best way for them to do it.  ↩

  2. Keeping in mind that even with the search box, many people still click through their folders rather than searching because they’re used to the idea that their document is ‘filed’ in a particular virtual place  ↩


Posted on February 19, 2013 and filed under tech.