Before Mailbox was even an officially announced project, and long before it sold to Dropbox in what is said to have been around a $100 million deal, Josh Milas and Alex Obenauer took to Kickstarter to fund their very own reinvention of email. The team created Mail Pilot, which promised “email reimagined,” with the goal of turning email into a task-oriented to-do list to help people truly get things done.
Here we are over a year after the Kickstarter project officially closed its successful funding period, and Mail Pilot is finally ready to debut its iPhone and iPad app to the general public. But it’s a very different one than it was as originally conceived, which, depending on what backers were expecting, may disappoint a few of them. Mail Pilot’s founders, however, believe the new model is better than their old, for backers and new customers alike.
Originally planned as a subscription service that, like Mailbox, used third-party servers to process a user’s email, Mail Pilot took a late game change in direction, announcing last week that it would be dropping the third-party server model and also doing away with subscription fees. Now it’s a one-time purchase for the app itself, and the app communicates directly with your own mail server, without having to route through a second destination. This offers speed and performance improvements, alleviates privacy concerns, and keeps costs down, the founders explained to me in an interview, and as someone who has used both early and later versions of the Mail Pilot beta, I can personally attest to the improvements in general performance.
“Dropping the subscription was conversation that we had had at least once every month since even before we went on to Kickstarter, because we didn’t know whether people would be willing to pay that, and we didn’t think they would be,” Obenauer explained in an interview. “But it was necessary for the server costs and for implementing some of the more advanced features.”
Since launching in beta back in September, Obenauer said that they’ve learned a lot more about what’s possible using just IMAP from the local applications themselves, and they also learned that the majority of users were dead set against having a subscription for something like a mail client, as expected. Also, the privacy implications of using third-party servers to process mail messages made many participants uncomfortable, even with proper encryption and security in place.
The challenge then became reworking the Mail Pilot model to implement its advanced features without the use of a third-party server. Those features involve mostly turning email into a more immediately actionable to-do list, with a checkbox to mark things as complete and send them to archive, the power set them for review at a specific later date or just a day to a few days away with a single swipe, and the ability to create lists out of emails directly.
The app is universal, and retails for $14.99. It’s a bit steep for an iOS title, but Obenauer said that they’ve found it’s what their audience is “willing to pay for an improved email experience.” That it’s more of a productivity app than a simple Gmail client is what helps justify the price, Milas explained, and it is true that apps like Things and OmniFocus are right in that price range.
Mail Pilot’s ditching of subscription fees means that backers who pledged a lot of money for extended service get free copies of the various Mail Pilot apps for life, and the iOS version is just the start. Milas says that a Mac version is on the horizon next, and there are plans for Windows and Android apps to follow down the road. Mail Pilot supports any email service provider with IMAP compatibility.
Mail apps are being acquired faster than they can be built, so I asked Obenauer and Milas whether they’re in this for the long haul or looking for a quick exit. They said they’re best-positioned right now to be able to build the product they want on their own, but anything’s possible.