To Mailbox or Not To Mailbox

Mailbox is a popular new email app that radically re-thinks the inbox. But does it work?

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Kevin: To Mailbox

I’m all in on Mailbox, not because I love it (I would say it’s currently a strong like) but because it’s an all-or-nothing system. As someone who used to never archive anything, getting used to Mailbox’s archive-everything methodology was a tough adjustment. But I’m glad I stuck with it. The more rigid a system of organization is, the more effective it is. Mailbox has helped me prioritize what I need to respond to immediately and what can wait — exactly what the app was designed to encourage.

At the same time, inflexibility reduces how broadly appealing that system can be. Mailbox works for me because I’ve committed to it, but I don’t think I could really recommend it to a friend without a strong warning that they would have to entirely rearrange how they handle their email. The lack of a desktop or web-based version is also a huge hinderance, but I imagine at least one of these things is in the works.

But is the problem simply email as a technology? I don’t think so. Sure, Gmail has tight control of what you can or can’t do with email. But in a lot of ways, email is one of our most robust web technologies. It’s not quite a platform, but it allows for a lot of innovation organizationally. I think Mailbox has proven this is possible. It’s a bold re-thinking of how the inbox should be organized.

And truthfully, the fact that we still call it an inbox reinforces our reluctance to let go of organizational metaphors that reflect analog counterparts. It’s stupid to file emails in “folders” when a digital entity can exist in multiple places (amazingly, Outlook still uses folders); labeling in Gmail was a simple but ingenuous move to pull us away from organizing our email like actual physical pieces of mail. Your email account is a searchable database, not a stack of papers.

To me, Mailbox feels like the next step by thinking of the inbox as a to-do list. It’s a very specific system that works for some people, but probably won’t with most. But the excitement around Mailbox shows that people are interested in seeing new ways to explore email organization. As much as I like Mailbox, I hope this enthusiasm encourages the development of other email clients, each with its own unique approach and personality.

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Avery: Not To Mailbox

I’ve been struggling to integrate Mailbox into my life. The idea of moving emails out of the inbox until I need to deal with them is very attractive to me (as a huge procrastinator, it hits all the right buttons), but I’m finding a lot of resistance to full conversion to the Mailbox system. I think a big problem is that it’s iOS specific (even iPod/iPhone specific, if you avoid iPad pixel-doubling) and when I use Gmail I have to deal with the added complexity of Mailbox’s labels in a non-intuitive setting. I suppose the solution would be to only use Mailbox, only use my phone, but I don’t have that much faith in my touchscreen-typing.

I think Gmail’s stranglehold on email is a big obstacle here. I think for a big leap in email to happen, people would have to switch to a new provider, the same way that the Gmail revolution relied on everyone ditching Hotmail. But Google’s been so proactive about making Gmail the hub for everything from birthday calendars to company documents that’s it’s going to be very hard to disengage completely in the way that’s necessary. So instead of a perfect scenario — like people switching to a Mailbox-hosted email solution, one built with Mailbox’s email management in mind — we have have to make do with bolting an app with those ideals onto Gmail’s existing system.

Which leads to problems like my newfound distrust of my inbox. On a couple of occasions last week I searched through “All Mail” and “Trash” to make sure everything was where it’s supposed to be. This is probably irrational, but I guess Mailbox is just too “smart” for me — as soon as it starts to make anything like decisions, I start worrying that it’s going to make those decisions without my consent.

Maybe it says something about my psychology that all I need is a slight delay in a reply from a friend before I get convinced that Mailbox has intercepted their message and hidden it.


Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute