Mailbox, the new e-mail app released in beta on Thursday, borrows some strategies from Gmail’s launch playbook. When Gmail launched in beta in 2004, most people couldn’t get access immediately — they had to secure one of a scare number of invites from someone who secured an inbox early. It generated a ton of buzz — I remember joining a site that let you swap your invites to strangers in trade for gifts. Once I finally got in, I parlayed some of my five invites into Tim Tams from Australia and a package of Dr. Pepper from Dublin, Texas, the kind that still has real sugar in it.
Like Gmail, Mailbox doesn’t grant you access immediately. Once you download the app, you’re placed in a reservation queue. I downloaded the app on Saturday — a bit late to the game, admittedly — and as of Sunday night, there are more than 653,000 people in front of me. Though Mailbox is promising an exponential ramp-up, I still have no real clue when I’ll get in. Some 70,000 have joined behind me, but I’ve moved forward fewer than 25,000 spots.
It’s easy to see that from a PR perspective, the reservation queue helped — it’s a unique aspect of the launch that, along with what appears to be a genuinely slick app, got Mailbox a lot of press coverage. But here are a few reasons why I think the reservation queue will turn off people to Mailbox even before they get access, and why I hope this doesn’t catch on with other apps in the future.
1. An e-mail app might not be worth waiting in line for. When Gmail launched, it was a transformative experience for e-mail. The storage capacity was hundreds of times higher than what Yahoo! or AOL offered and it popularized some of the e-mail features now taken for granted, like grouping large threads into conversations. Mailbox is an app to manage Gmail. It may be a better app to manage Gmail, but there are already a lot of good ones, including Google’s official app. In other words, if anything, it’s a small step forward and it’s tough to get excited about queuing up for that.
Nor does the app solve any of the problems with e-mail. Other than instant messenger, e-mail was the main way to communicate when Gmail launched in 2004. Now it’s one of a lot, and not a particularly beloved one. I’m much more likely to send a text or a Facebook message than an e-mail, especially when things like seen state let me know when the recipient opened and read the message. Mailbox is a tool to better organize an inbox, but it doesn’t fundamentally improve the communication medium. Again, that makes it tough to get excited about, especially if e-mail use is waning.
2. A reservation queue isn’t social. Part of what made the Gmail launch interesting were sites like the invite-trading service, or conversations with your friends to see if they’d gotten in yet and had an invite to spare. There’s none of that here — just a counter on a page, ticking down. There’s no shortcut to tweet or share your spot in line either, only a link that takes you to a canned Twitter query for “@mailbox”. Everyone lining up together is democratizing, I suppose, but at the expense of some of the cool cachet of being able to give your friends early access.
3. It’s taking up a spot on my home screen. I’m not even that methodical about organizing my iPhone, but I’m annoyed every time I see the icon sitting there, doing nothing. I get tempted to delete it. I can see how this cuts both ways — requiring you to keep the application in order to receive a push notification for when you get access ensures you won’t forget it, and you’ll give it a shot when you do get in. But an iPhone app takes up real estate in a way that a website doesn’t and when it has no purpose, it’s natural to want to clear it out.
4. It runs contrary to other experiences on mobile. As a platform, mobile’s all about a lack of friction and instant gratification. Downloading an app and then waiting to use it runs against everything I’ve come to expect from a device that lets me download a song or book now or share a photo immediately. That’s the awesome part of the app store, after all — if I get sick of something or just want something new, I can try out a different options immediately. I’m curious whether Apple will start to prevent other apps from adopting this tactic if it becomes more common, as it really would undermine some of the value of the app store.