Orchestra's Mailbox invents the worst way of launching an iOS app

I have been excited about the Mailbox app since I first saw their promo video. The promise was simple: to change the way we all deal with e-mail by snoozing messages that don't require immediate action - leaving behind a clean and shiny Inbox Zero.

On top of that philosophy, the promo portrayed a gorgeous and snappy interface. One that was ready to fill the void left by the soon-to-be-dead-but-still-works-just-fine Sparrow app, sold to Google in July of 2012 and promised not ever to be touched again - although some minor updates came up right after.

With that, Mailbox was released this month for the iPhone with Gmail support. The launch came with major hype. Macworld's Lex Friedman did a great review on it. The kind that makes you want to install the thing halfway through reading it.

Mailbox is excellent. It replaced Mail in my iPhone’s dock, and it’s my favorite way to plow through my inbox. The app is simply a joy to use, and makes managing email as painless as possible.

John Gruber, from the Daring Fireball, also praised the app, though he admitted won't be using it.

The bottom line for me is that it’s an app I greatly admire, but won’t use personally. For one thing, it’s too Gmail centric. But I can see how a lot of people will really like it, especially people who primarily use email through one main Gmail account.

So, after hitting the App Store - and many other good blog reviews later - the Mailbox app is, as expected, a great… failure. What? Come on.

Well, at the time I started writing this piece, the app had an average of only 2,5 stars on iTunes. Almost 1,000 one star reviews and a little more than 600 five star ones.

But how is that possible? How an apparently awesome app gets so much bad rep in so little time? What went wrong with it?

 Mailbox averages 2,5 stars on the iTunes Store.

Mailbox averages 2,5 stars on the iTunes Store.

The frustration line

The big problem starts with how Orchestra chose to roll out access to the app. Because of the way it works, Mailbox has to talk to their servers before it deals with Gmail. With that in mind, developers wisely imagined that a huge amount of traffic could potentially overload the service.

Mailbox relies on servers in the cloud to do things like send push notifications, make downloading email as fast as possible, and handle snoozed messages. Software that is server-based is susceptible to being overloaded and we want to keep this from happening. This is email, after all, and it needs to work reliably.

Orchestra's direct competitor, 6Wunderkinder, faced the overload nightmare recently with the release of their hit Wunderlist 2. So many people downloaded the app in the first days that the servers couldn't handle the traffic and folks got really, really mad - reacting, of course, by unfairly talking down the app and clicking off as many review stars as they could.

To avoid that, Orchestra came up with an unique approach. They decided to roll out the app on a reservation basis. To get their hands on it, people would have to sign up with their phone numbers and hold on to a code sent by SMS to safeguard a position in line - I did that as soon as I could, but never got the text message (it could be an international carrier issue, since I am not in the US).

After the app release, users could simply insert their SMS code or just make a new reservation right there, inside the app (which I did again, since my SMS never came).

And that's when the frustration started. Instead of enjoying the app right away, people faced a pretty well designed wall stating what their position was among hundreds of thousands. And for many, the line was way too long and way too slow.

Unfair bad reviews

On their blog, the Mailbox crew explained very clear how the reservation process works. The post even talks about the slow motion mode of the line at the beginning.

At first, the pace may seem slow. This is by design. If we run into unexpected snags, we may even stop filling reservations temporarily. But as the service grows, we should be able to dramatically increase this pace until we no longer need a reservation system at all.

Many users, however, didn't read that or didn't care. With the app displaying a list of almost 800,000 people and sometimes barely moving, the waiting game, for some, wasn't much fun.

Because of the way the App Store works, once you download an app, you can review it. Orchestra let users download it but didn't let them use it. What do you think comes next?

Bad reviews on the iTunes Store are still pilling up. And the worst thing is, they come from people who didn't even see the app in action, which is totally unfair to Mailbox, but completely expected from an unpleased internet crowd.

Hoping to preserve the quality of their service and avoid frustration to those who are using the application, Orchestra managed to annoy their future users by not letting them see the goods and by giving them a terrible expectation.

 Tapbots solved user base limitations the right way.

Tapbots solved user base limitations the right way.

Please, take my money

Tapbots is one of the most admired companies around. They're the makers of the big hit Twitter client Tweetbot. When launching the Mac version, the company was faced with a limitation imposed by Twitter to all developers using its API.

To solve that, Tapbots decided to sell the app for 20 bucks, an unusual price for a Twitter client. So unusual that the company even posted about it, first elaborating on how the figure was not that bad:

Why is Tweetbot for Mac $20? If you think about it, it’s not that expensive. Twenty dollars for a quality piece of software that you use every day? That has been the price point for quality utility apps on the Mac for years.

And then, getting to the real issue:

This limit and our desire to continue to support the app once we sell out is why we’ve priced Tweetbot for Mac a little higher than we’d like. It’s the best thing we can do for the long term viability of the product. We know some will not be happy about Tweetbot for Mac’s pricing, but the bottom line is Twitter needs to provide us with more tokens for us to be able to sell at a lower the price.

As they predicted, many people didn't like the idea. A whole lot, however, understood it and even appreciated the fact that a company would charge a fair price for such a well crafted piece of software. Despite some trash comments on their blog, the current version of the app has an average of 4,5 stars on the Mac App Store, which is great on any book.

Mailbox should do the same. The app seems to be fantastic (again, I am in line like most so I can't tell for sure). Orchestra has a great reputation built by their homonymous to-do lists application. They should have put a price tag on Mailbox and let people who appreciate paying for good software enjoy it.

That approach would have made the user base smaller, likely within their server limitations. Nobody would be pissed off. Not even those who only care for free downloads. They would just carry on and we would all be happy by now.

That being said, I still can't wait for the 541,579 people ahead of me to move so I can get to Mailbox and give it a spin. My excitement about it remains just as big as the line.