Did Mailbox Fail?

A few days ago I was having a discussion about a new product I was working on with a client. Like most people, I’m tired of hearing new founders describe their applications as “the Uber”, “the Snapchat”, or “the Slack” for insert industry. Slack in their bizarre podcast series had a great segment on this. However, every now and then in the world of product discussion it does help to define a feature or functionality that you want so that the rest of the room is able to understand where you’re coming from. So I said, “I want this app to do what Mailbox did for email.”

As soon as I said that, somebody responded, “Why? MailBox is closing down, they failed!” But did they really fail? In my opinion, they changed the landscape of email. This exclamation was followed with a common quote heard around our office, “This would make a great Medium article.” But unlike every other time it was said, we actually decided to write it.

Since the announcement of Mailbox’s departure, like anything else, people took to Twitter to express their feelings. There was the standard Twitter outcry, those depressed by the news, those cynics saying they always knew that this would happen, those ready to say Mailbox is a Failure, and then some people who wanted to really appreciate Mailbox for what it was.

Classic Twitter Reactions

If you do a simple Google search on MailBox shutting down you will find as always a Quora question.

Clearly written by someone who loved Mailbox and their frustration with their email client of choice being shut down.

Another search result you will find is Venture Beat click-bait.

Venture Beat discusses the difficulties of building an email client, the cost associated with doing so, the need for both a desktop and mobile application (something mailbox was late to the game with) as well as my favorite “5. The future of email is not in a new UI.”

A lot of startups are tackling the email client problem by renewing the user interface. The idea is to improve the user experience with beautiful, polished interfaces (Mailbox was definitely one of them). Very few apps are actually trying to solve the “email problem” through something other than the email interface…
In other words, to unclutter the email inbox, you don’t need to fix the interface, you need people to send fewer emails. Email is used for everything: personal communication, collaboration, file storage, customer support, calendaring, to-do lists, and more. If, for each one of those “areas”, a service could replace the need to use emails, it would negate the need for new email interfaces.

Venture Beat isn’t wrong about the importance of getting teams to utilize Slack and other tools more. I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment but that's not the point of Mailbox. I think we can all agree it was Mailbox’s responsibility to change tendencies of stupid co-workers.

Clearly people are trying to understand what went wrong with MailBox and why Dropbox has decided to shut it down after dropping a cool $100 million on it. The point of this is however not to discuss DropBox’s earnings or how they didn’t continue to innovate but about the impact that Mailbox had. For those who still use MailBox you are reminded of the impending doom every time you open the app with the countdown to shutdown banner the have added to the application.

I, like most, ditched MailBox during the wait for a desktop app. While I loved the app, email is certainly still a desktop activity at times and I needed it to have my mail clients on both platforms talk seamlessly together. I’m a Gmail/Google Apps users as well as having the token.mac/MobileMe/iCloud account that all apple users and enthusiasts have. So, when MailBox first came out it was perfect but as time progressed it no longer was a viable option. I’m not saying that MailBox shouldn’t be shut down, but I refuse not to have a discussion and give credit where credit is due to MailBox for the impact it had on changing the landscape on email.

Simply put, MailBox didn’t fail. It’s unique desire to reinvent how users interact with email has transcended the application. It’s objective of changing how a user fundamentally thinks about Email was a success. DropBox’s inability to move the app forward shouldn’t sully the name of MailBox.

MailBox did three things to the concept of email, it showed a path to better email management, introduced a new UI/UX that understood users needs to prioritize and address emails quickly, and it forced all major email clients to rethink fundamentally how users wanted to interact with email. Okay, so maybe 2 & 3 are kind of the same, or at least a cause and effect situation but three things always sound better than two.

Inbox Zero, Email Bliss

Gmail brought the concept of archiving emails to the forefront, essentially as users you had an inbox and the ability to move emails out of your inbox without being required to set up a series of folders for sorting purposes. Emails are a string of communications with a person or a group, if you wanted to find them again, you could simply search their name or the subject you didn’t need to spend time putting them into nice little neat folders (or labels). But many users didn’t archive because they could not understand the value and people simply let their inbox be managed by read and unread to make sure they stayed on top of email.

MailBox introduced the idea of forcing users to clear emails out of their inbox the reward was two part the feeling of being accomplished and providing them a nice Instagram photo of the day. Inbox Zero keeps your inbox clean and clutter free.

The concept was like crack to early adopters of the app; you felt like you were on top of your email game. Every day for at least the first week you were swiping left and right and getting those damn emails out of your way. Nothing was going to stop you from being on top of your email, you dealt with important emails right away and left the less important ones to be dealt with when you had more time, and that is where point two beings. By forcing users to clear away the clutter they now had interactions they had never conceived before.

Sorry VentureBeat, UI/UX is the first step to solving the mess of email.

Snooze & List by unlocking the power of the swipe gesture on the iPhone. Mailbox provided users the ability to prioritize email effectively. Something that people have struggled with since the day email started flowing into their inbox. That email from your mom with the article about hypoallergenic sheets, I can deal with that next week, the email from a client, I need to address now, and that email for meeting up on Thursday, I’ll get to that this evening when I have time.

There are other ways and tools that people should be taking control of their email with as well, of course, unroll.me is great to get rid of the 100 subscriptions you have signed up for over the last 5 years, nobody really wants 5 emails from AppSumo a week showing up in their inbox. Team communications shouldn’t be over email, but there will always be that one guy on the team that no matter how many times you say “SlackMe” will still send multi-paragraph emails to you (you know who you are). Those aren’t things that you can always change so sometimes you need to tackle problems with email on the front lines on a daily basis as they come in, and UI/UX is the key to doing so.

MailBox wasn’t perfect, but it shifted the goal of email clients forever.

Sure, MailBox took too long for the desktop app to come out, and it never added Yahoo Mail (Seriously, who uses Yahoo mail and how is that a valid complaint). DropBox couldn’t monetize it or move it forward enough for it to make sense for them as a company.

Ellis Hamburger ( @hamburger ) said it right:

Look at the impact that Mailbox had on other mail clients, Apple Mail on the iPhone has swipe gestures. Inbox by google, the lightweight mail client, took MailBox a step further it has the swiping and the nice bells and whistles, but it also looked at email as a massive todo list and like any todo list you should clear it out and hit inbox zero. Mail clients are still trying to find a way to have users reach that blissful feeling of being on to of your shit.

Sure, with Inbox I can’t use any gmail plugins or even have an auto bcc to my CRM, but it’s a beta and eventually, maybe, Google will do something with it. There are many other email clients that had and have some of these features before and after MailBox so to those founders I’m sorry for not including you. But anybody that interacts with email be it as a user, a complainer, a dreamer for better email MailBox was certainly a step in the right directions and not a failure.

This isn’t a plea to keep MailBox alive; it will be gone soon. It is simply a request that in the annals of Start Up history it isn’t tossed away as a failure but looked at upon for its merits as one of the largest steps in the right direction to solving the quagmire that is email. Like Robert Emmet the great Irish Nationalist who asked that his epitaph not be written till Ireland was united and free. I ask that the Epitaph for MailBox not be written until we can say mission accomplished and that the war for better email has been won and that we are all free from email as we know it now.

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