Mailbox (for iPhone) review

No longer gated with a long waiting list, the Mailbox app is now open for all iOS users to try, totally free. The app's philosophy isn't for everyone, but gives clear guidelines to people who struggle to feel in control of their inboxes.
Photo of Mailbox (for iPhone)

When the email management system app Mailbox, by Orchestra Inc., originally debuted on the iPhone, the company only gave a few users access to service at a time, which resulted in a long waiting list and a lot of hype. The waiting game is over now with the free app now freely available to use as both an iPhone app (the focus of this review) and in the Mailbox iPad app.

The app works by providing a series of set touch-screen gestures that encourage users to do something with every message that enters their inbox. This is email triage at its finest, which isn’t exactly an enticing opening gambit. “Triage” is the appropriate word, though. Mailbox’s strength is that it helps you keep on top of email when you’re at your weakest moments, out of the office without a keyboard and large screen in sight. Not everyone will find it helpful, though, so it’s important to know just how Mailbox aims to solve your email woes before you get sucked into using it as a primary solution for email management.

Mailbox Philosophy and Gestures
Mailbox largely adheres to the Inbox Zero philosophy, which loosely states that an ideal inbox has zero messages in it by the time you close it. (As an aside, the creator of Inbox Zero, Merlin Mann, told me in an email conversation recently that Inbox Zero is not about having zero messages at all costs. It’s more about having an inbox that doesn’t overwhelm you and contains a reasonable amount of information to process and digest.) At the heart of the philosophy is the idea that when you look at email messages, you should do something with them, such as respond, file away, archive, delete, or push them off until later.

Mailbox’s implementation of this concept is to give iOS users simple gestures for these actions. A long swipe to the right deletes a message, but a short swipe to the right marks a message as having been completed (so it can be archived). A short swipe to the left snoozes a message (i.e., puts it into another folder out of sight temporarily), and you can mark when it should reappear in your inbox. A long left swipe files the message into the folder of your choice.

Mailbox only works with Gmail at the moment, which is a show stopper for a lot of people hoping to use the app for business email processing, particularly when they’re on the road and merely need to stay on top of the inbox influx. You can, however, add multiple Gmail accounts, just not email from any other host. The app automatically sets up a few folders (“tags” in Gmail) for you—To Read, To Watch, To Buy, and Later—which you’ll see the next time you log into Gmail proper nested inside a new “Mailbox” folder/tag.

Why Mailbox Isn’t for Everyone
While Mailbox certainly does appeal to people who don’t know how to process email and often feel overloaded by it (and for you guys, I have a ton of tips for getting organized), it’s not a great solution for those who already deal with email pretty effectively. One problem is you can’t select multiple messages at a time to process in bulk. I’m a rampant deleter, and the inability to delete six, seven, eight, fifteen messages at a shot completely destroys my productivity practices. You can do any of the swipe actions for your entire inbox by scrolling to the very bottom, but you can’t hand-pick which messages to include or not include.

Without support for email hosting services beyond Gmail, or the ability to process messages in bulk, Mailbox for iPhone’s appeal remains somewhat limited. It might help you triage email in certain circumstances, especially if you spend a lot of time away from your desk, but I have a hard time seeing it as a long-term solution to email overload.

Specifications
Type Business, Personal
Free Yes

Verdict
No longer gated with a long waiting list, the Mailbox app is now open for all iOS users to try, totally free. The app's philosophy isn't for everyone, but gives clear guidelines to people who struggle to feel in control of their inboxes.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc