Mailbox and the Velvet Rope Bar


Update: Mailbox has been acquired by Dropbox. Now that’s an interesting idea and a probable way of simply solving the issues I highlight in this post.

When Mailbox launched – if launched is what you call something which operates like a popular bar by throwing up a velvet rope and making people wait for the doorman to let you in – I pooh-poohed it on the basis that it was being promoted by its adherents as another way of “fixing” email.

Mailbox’s creators, Orchestra, have previously been known for their task management software, but appear to have figured out that despite the popularity of such applications and services, what people actually do is respond to email or manage tasks inside of their existing email software. And while its true that how the customer perceives and uses Mailbox is what will be in the end important, that its creators appear to have learned from a previous attempt at solving the task list needs to also be taken into account.

Far too often in conversations both online and offline since the queue for Mailbox commenced, I’ve noted that just because the massive benefits email offers have been destroyed by how society chooses to use it, doesn’t mean that the structural problems those uses have caused can immediately be solved by some new silver bullet for your iPhone or anything else. I agree that for many email is like an unending chore – without adequate filters and rules, it’s more likely to be an overwhelming multi-thousand file list. I used to allow my mail to build up that way and I see a large number of my colleagues and peers who still do. How Mailbox is promoted, it claims to want to solve that problem for users. And despite my reservations, for that ambition I applaud it.

For now Mailbox is offering a unique value proposition and something close to a million people have signed up to that. It makes no sense then that they aren’t charging for it. Sure, they might get fewer takers for the product than if they gave it away, but they absolutely get to pay the bills. Because Mailbox appears to do nothing which cannot be replicated inside another native app on a device or computer, they need to make some return while they remain unique. It’s almost certain that an upgraded version of the Gmail app or some other new way to solve email will eventually appear for the iPhone and if not steal all their revenue opportunities, at least dilute them, potentially fatally.

To add to this problem mailbox requires access to your mail on whichever mail server you are using (currently limited to Gmail). This means that  you are continually at the behest of more than one service to access your messages, which despite the cloud cheer squad behind them, still makes it subject to the possibility of your data being compromised in multiple locations, the transfer between these locations and outages at more than one site.

When the product is free, these are risks some appear more likely to take when the tradeoff appears to be so beneficial. The question is then, how sustainable is this relationship? Sure its fine to join the curiosity queue – hell that’s why they put up the velvet ropes outside bars and nightclubs – but remember that once you’re inside, you still have to invest time, effort and possibly money. You can sit in the corner and allow yourself to be entertained, but at sometime you’re going to need to go to the bar and manage your email or pay for someone else to bring it to you.

At what point – if the hope to add a premium set of paid features over time doesn’t stack up – do Orchestra turn to hand-wavy future advertising business models in order to pay back what has to be a pretty serious chunk of coin to build and support a service with at least a million users? Or will they just join the list of Mail apps who have promised this before and failed to deliver?

Mailbox could be a great application to help what appears to be a large portion of the email frustrated, or it could be another Sparrow, Color or Path. Hyped by the web 2.0 startup mentality to attract the wildebeest who pay little heed to the crocodile filled rivers upcoming on the road to success.

In an era of Apps on small devices being promoted as the antidotes to all our ills, lets not forget that these apps often rely heavily on platforms and services to make them usable. And even in the cheap and effective era of Amazon AWS, like the rent on Bar Velvet Rope, services cost money and if they aren’t paid, apps like Mailbox cease to be anything but a pretty design.

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5 thoughts on “Mailbox and the Velvet Rope Bar

  1. The developers have already addressed the business model – it will be like Evernote: the base product free, expanded features subscription.

  2. The only way to fix email is to kill it (with apologies to the Vietnam War). If the social networks would magically start cooperating and build a message exchange mechanism with federated authentication, we’d all be sweet. Also, I’d like a pony.

    Mailbox’s engineering looks weak (or just naive) on the server side. Serious issues at 50M msg/week? That being said, I don’t see much in the app that can’t be achieved without server side infrastructure, and something that couldn’t be copied into the Gmail app and rolled out to everyone without waiting.

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