Cloud to-do list company Orchestra today announced Mailbox, an email client for the iPhone it's been building for the last year. I’ve been testing Mailbox for the last few weeks and it’s nothing short of spectactular. It’s the best (and certainly the most modern) Gmail client for iPhone since Sparrow, and operates on a simple premise: how do you turn the mobile email inbox into a to-do list, but in a non-obtrusive way? The app feels like a combination of Sparrow and Clear — a beautifully designed messaging client meshed with a swipe-able productivity app. "Most everyone uses email on their phones, and most everyone hates it," Orchestra CEO Gentry Underwood says. "We feel like that's a big opportunity to make a small improvement in a lot of people's lives." A few apps have tried and failed to accomplish this goal, but where they failed Mailbox succeeds. And yes — it has push notifications for new messages.
Whereas most Mail apps rely on buttons to archive, delete, and file emails for later, Mailbox relies on a simple and colorful set of swipes. "Email was designed 30 years ago for computers chained to desks," Underwood says. "Everything about it is slow and clunky. If you want to make it fast and mobile-friendly, the entire experience needs to be modernized." Swiping a message to the right archives it (symbolized by a checkmark), while swiping a message to the left saves it for later (a yellow clock symbol). Swiping a message to the right and holding deletes it (symbolized by a red x), and swiping a message to the left and holding opens a List screen where you can move / label messages. In grand total, there are four ways to act on a message in your inbox, which means there’s a bit of a learning curve, but it’s worth it.
"Email was designed 30 years ago for computers chained to desks."
Setting aside the baseline functionality a mobile email client needs to have, Mailbox excels in a few key areas. First, it’s blazing fast. It’s as fast, if not faster, than Apple’s stock Mail app at downloading and sending messages. "IMAP is super slow and cumbersome, so we built our own communication system, leveraging the year-plus of work we'd done to optimize messaging for Orchestra," Underwood says. "We check your email from the cloud, compress and reformat it for your phone, and have it ready and waiting for you when you open the app."
Composing and sending a message feels (and looks) more like sending a tweet than an email. Mailbox also excels at displaying message threads as if they were texting conversations. When you tap into a message or conversation, you notice that instead of conventional emails, you see small chat bubbles displayed tactfully. Mailbox does its best to hide signatures and only show the meat of each message, but tapping any individual message lets you see any message in its expanded state, which includes To, From, Cc, and other fields.
Last but not least, Mailbox has a useful scheme for deferring messages and saving them to do later. Swiping a message to the left pops up a grid of options that lets you decide when the message will pop back into your inbox. It recalls Boomerang, a Gmail plugin that works well on desktop, but not as well on mobile. You can chose between seven "snooze" options: later today, this evening, tomorrow, this weekend, next week, in a month, and someday. You can also select "Pick Date" to set a precise date and time for when the message will surface in your inbox. In Mailbox’s settings, you can nail down exactly what each of these options means. For example, if you leave work at 9PM, you can have Mailbox return messages you’ve marked for "This Evening" to return to your inbox at that point.
The best part is that messages you defer for "later" on your phone also translate to the inbox on your computer or on the web. Mailbox creates a "Later" folder in Gmail to hold the stuff you don’t want to deal with. On the iPhone, Mailbox’s Later folder is cleverly organized by date, letting you browse through all the messages you’ve saved. It works very well, and begs for a Mac counterpart.
Mailbox is my new favorite email app for iPhone, and hopefully someday for my Mac as well. Combining a fresh take on messaging producitivity with lightning-fast sending and receiving, Mailbox is a winner. The app does have its share of shortcomings and missing things, namely a Starred section, photo avatars, a way to only view unread messages, a built-in web browser, and support for non-Gmail accounts — but considering Mailbox is a 1.0 app, I find it very hard to complain. Now, all we have to do is wait until "the new year" when it hits the App Store (for an unspecified price).