The Real Problem with Mailbox

Getting this out of the way up front: I love Mailbox. That little app has entirely changed the way I respond to and triage my email. The gestures make taking action (or not) lightning fast and the “deal with this later” feature has taken away a huge cognitive load for me. People complain that it doesn’t support labels (which Gmail search solves for me), marking as spam (Gmail already does an amazing job automatically) or don’t agree with the information hierarchy (I haven’t noticed a problem). These people are missing the point, in my opinion. The power of Mailbox is in what they’ve chosen to leave out, as well as what they’ve very carefully added. Email has become a complex beast and they’ve attacked it with an elegant reductionism that, as a product person, I can’t help but admire.

But Mailbox has one huge, glaring, nasty (and potentially fatal) flaw: if their servers go down (as they have today, and will in the future), your email suddenly becomes unreachable through the app. Yep, if you want to make sure you have quick access to your email at all times, better leave Sparrow or the official Gmail app installed. Because relying solely on Mailbox will leave you high and dry the minute their servers sputter.

And look, I’m not an engineer, but this seems like a really bad plan. When I launch Sparrow, the only way my email doesn’t come through is if Gmail itself goes down. With Mailbox, I’m adding a second point of failure. And for what? It seems to me (again, I’m not an engineer, somebody stop me anytime with how wrong I am) that it should be possible to sync the list of messages using the new read-it-later feature without making the entire system fail when the Mailbox servers go down (Boomerang has already figured this out). And if I can’t use that feature temporarily, that’s far less of a pain in the ass (read-it-later messages are currently starred, so still accessible) than simply not being able to check or respond to messages at all. Can you imagine if your Chrome browser simply stopped browsing the Internet when the Chrome download servers hiccuped? Oof.

Sure, other services go down and we deal with that because they’re young and valuable (Fail Whale, anyone?). But most of the services we try out early aren’t built on top of other crucial Internet services. If the Timehop servers go down and I can’t check today’s report, that’s a bummer, but not stress-inducing. But email being unreachable for half a day (the last outage was nearly a full day)? It wouldn’t be crazy to switch apps to something more reliable and never go back to Mailbox.

To be clear: this problem is absolutely not unsolvable for Mailbox, but they need to solve it quickly. As more and more users join, that second point of failure becomes even more and more painful each time it results in downtime. For a company that seems primarily concerned with user experience, it seems crazy to promote an experience where the app doesn’t work, but your native iOS mail client does. With incumbents like Apple, Gmail, etc., Mailbox App’s stability is critical to its long-term viability.

I really hope they address this. My email sucks without them.


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