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Why Mailbox died

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Before it even launched in early 2013, more than 1 million people signed up to try Mailbox. A month later, at the height of the app’s popularity, Dropbox bought it for a reported $100 million. At the time, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston said it would help the company’s then-nascent efforts around collaboration. "Many have promised to help us with our overflowing inboxes, but the Mailbox team actually delivered," he said. "Whether it’s your Dropbox or your Mailbox, we want to find ways to simplify your life."

On Monday, Dropbox simplified its own life by ending Mailbox’s. (Carousel, Dropbox’s aimless photo-storage solution, also got the axe.) The moves were a long time coming. Despite Houston’s public pronouncements to the contrary, the apps were clearly abandoned earlier this year. It’s easy to criticize Dropbox for its stewardship of Mailbox; its pace of development slowed to a crawl soon after the acquisition, a Mac desktop app never made it out of beta, and by this spring it was virtually abandonware.

The market for productivity apps has proven to be a mirage

But Mailbox’s steady decline reflects a larger, less comfortable truth about app development in 2015. The market for consumer productivity apps, which spurred companies like Dropbox and Evernote to multi-billion-dollar valuations, has proven to be mostly a mirage. Businesses are increasingly happy to buy software for their employees; people are often loath to buy software for themselves. And for all it did right, Mailbox never became anything more than an alternate user interface for other companies’ email servers. There was a lot of intelligence in it, but no money.

The Mailbox team can’t say it wasn’t warned. Back when co-founder Gentry Underwood was raising money to build the app that would become Mailbox, investors tried to urge him away. "This path," they told him, "is paved with corpses." Ask Sparrow, or Molto, or Boxer. Everyone uses email, but most are content to stick with the default mail app on their phones. At worst, you’re dead within months. At best, you’re acquired, and then killed off a few years later. To make a real dent, any new email client would have to be much, much better.

mailbox main 1020 b

And Mailbox was! An app is lucky if it introduces one true innovation to the market; Mailbox brought at least three. There was the novel use of swipes to move messages around. There was the introduction of timed "snoozes" for your messages, so they would pop back up when you were prepared to address them. And there was the unique way it launched: making you sign up for a waiting list to start using the app that, whether or not it was necessary from a technical perspective, proved invaluable for public-relations purposes.

Mailbox's three big innovations

Over the next two years, swiping to archive or delete messages became an email app standard. You can find it in Yahoo Mail, Google’s Inbox, and Microsoft Outlook. A swipe-to-archive gesture showed up in other places, too: Pocket, the save-for-later app, was one; Todoist, a task management app, was another. Snoozing comes standard now, too (Outlook, Inbox). And the waiting list? That was widely copied as well.

For me, the genius of Mailbox was twofold. First, using it simply felt faster than any email app I ever used. It pre-fetched messages in the background; whenever you opened it you could start dealing with the daily horror of your inbox right away. Second, using it was satisfying in a way no other email client was: every time I swiped my fat thumb on a message, banishing it to the archive, the email turned a lustrous green. Mailbox was good for dashing off quick replies, but it was best-in-class for cleaning house. Every time I found myself standing in a line, I’d open up Mailbox and positively murder my inbox. Mailbox turned you into an email assassin.

So why didn’t Mailbox thrive after its acquisition? It soon fell out of the iOS App Store charts, and on Android topped out around 1 million downloads. Underwood was promoted to head of product at Dropbox, where he was soon put to work on other products, including the hapless Carousel. By June of this year, he had stepped down from that role; he has since left the company for good. Co-founder Scott Cannon remains at Dropbox, where among other things he's managing Mailbox's shutdown. (Underwood declined to comment for this article.)

mailbox for mac

Dropbox’s own message to users was cryptic. "As we’ve increased our focus on collaboration," it wrote, "we realized there’s only so much an email app can do to fundamentally improve email." (Who the hell’s job is it to fundamentally improve email?) Dropbox’s "increased focus on collaboration" has taken the form of Paper, its multiplayer document editor. Email requires collaboration around communication, a Dropbox weakness; documents require collaboration around content, a Dropbox strength.

Mailbox had multiple causes of death. Most people don’t download email apps; those who do don’t want to pay for them. The only path forward for an email app is acquisition, and the fate of most acquired apps is death. Other email apps copied Mailbox’s best features; aside from a somewhat dubious automatic archiving feature, Mailbox stopped building new ones.

Email doesn't fit into Dropbox's strategy

For a time, Dropbox believed email could be part of its suite of personal productivity apps. But the company belatedly realized that the only way it could live up to its $10 billion valuation was to begin steering toward the enterprise. And if there was a way to fit an email client into that strategy, Dropbox couldn’t find it.

There’s a world in which Dropbox accepted slower growth and a lower valuation and maintained its original focus on personal productivity. It’s a world in which the company’s suite of products would likely include messaging and creation tools and powerful ways to organize your music, photos, and documents. It’s a world that feels much more interesting to me as a user of the company’s products. And yet it’s hard for me to argue that in this world Dropbox would make more money than it’s making today.

For a moment, though, that world was coming into focus. On Twitter, people spoke of the coming "Dropbox OS" — a mythical suite of products, led by some of the world’s best designers and engineers, coming to rescue us from the dull gray Google-and-Microsoft status quo. Mailbox was the acquisition that made it all seem possible. It was nice while it lasted.