End of an App

10 December 2015 #Thoughts


Another day, another app gets “sun-setted”.

This week Dropbox announced that after spending $100 million to acquire Mailbox just two years ago, it would soon be shut down.

Of all the apps on my phone to actually make life more convenient, none has had a greater impact than Mailbox. It “fixed” email. Not by reimagining email from the top down like Google and others have tried. Instead creating simple methods to deal with common problems.

Mailbox wasn’t a great app because it boasted a massive feature set. It was great because of its focus on achieving a few goals. If you never tried it allow me to explain.

It was laser focused on keeping your inbox empty.

How Mailbox users achieved “Inbox Zero”

  1. Focus on “emails in your inbox”, not “unread emails”
  2. Archive (remove from the inbox) emails that no longer need your attention
  3. Delete emails that have no value
  4. “Snooze” emails for later, tomorrow, next week, or a set date

All of those functions could be done via a swipe from your inbox, or a button press while reading an email.

That’s it. That’s all it did. Because it only did those things and did them so well, you could wake up with 20-30 emails and within moments triage your inbox having cleared the clutter – and better yet – your mind.

It does still seem a little ridiculous for Dropbox to pay such a high price for an application that you can sum up in four points. But its simplicity was the beauty of its design. I had never felt like I was in control of my emails until using Mailbox.

(Side note: from everything I’ve read building an email client is an insanely complex problem. The Mailbox team deserve full credit for taking such a complex problem and giving it an elegant, dependable solution.)

In search of a replacement

The Mac and iOS App Stores have a few email clients, some I’ve begun testing out. But nothing matches the focus of Mailbox.

For example Spark is a very professionally made app, but is the “Swiss Army Knife” of mail apps. I don’t say that as a compliment. There’s a dizzying array of options in every screen, all of them customisable. It feels like an app on iOS made with the mentality (or lack of focus) of Android. It can do everything Mailbox does, but not nearly as well, because it’s trying to do so much else.

The visuals are really heavy and surprisingly stylised for “flat design”-era app. The email view UI has a similar layout to Instapaper or Reeder, as if users are want to relax and read long-form emails. Email is utilitarian, it’s the plumbing of internet communication. It should be treated as such. It does not need fancy visuals.

Update: Another 12 hours using Spark after posting this and I can’t recommend the app at all. Push doesn’t work, Gmail and Spark’s “snoozed” messages constantly out of sync and don’t reappear without refreshing the app. Avoid this app.

Boxer is another mail app that looks great but without a snooze function it’s a non-starter. Plus with a huge banner on their home page announcing their acquisition, who could trust them before an inevitable “sunsetting”?

It seems email clients on the App Store set out to “one-up” all others. That gives them a great bullet point list of features, but it makes them worse experiences.

If you want to make an app as good as Mailbox, just go and re-create Mailbox.

Not cool

In a post-email world ushered in by the immensely popular Slack, perhaps Dropbox sees email as an old-world service. Email is not exactly a “trending” technology.

I would’ve paid big money for Mailbox as its own app. I’m disappointed as a Dropbox Pro subscriber that that money didn’t go towards the further development of the app.

With Mailbox gone a solved problem goes un-solved.

Thanks Dropbox.