Sometimes, when a truly innovative startup is acquired by a larger company, innovation slows to a crawl. And other times, when an acquisition happens, a company gets the backup and investment it needs to keep on innovating. It seems like that latter case is true for Mailbox, which, two months after being acquired by Dropbox, is now ready to release its iPad app to the world.
Mailbox has been working on the app since well before the acquisition, testing out various form factors and iterations in an effort to get it just right. In a video interview last week, Mailbox founder Gentry Underwood showed us the app, explaining how the company reformatted its features specifically for the larger screen of the iPad. For one thing, the app works only in landscape mode, with a list of messages that have yet to be read on the left-hand side, and a preview pane so that users can read emails in full on the right.
“The iPad is an interesting design challenge,” Underwood told me. “It sits halfway between a mobile device and a laptop. Sometimes we use them like luxuriously large phones and other times we use them almost as laptop replacements.” As a result, that changes what people do with their email client.
“Our goal was to create an experience that was as fast and fluid for processing mail as you might do on a phone — so very quickly being able to go through and triage your messages like you can on Mailbox for iPhone,” he said. “But also, leaving enough real estate for those times when you might have a keyboard up… and you’re actually trying to use your iPad as you might use a laptop to actually get through messages in a more intentional way.”
The goal for Mailbox was to try to find a marriage between those situations that satisfied both conditions. To do that, Mailbox took advantage of the greater screen real estate to give users a greater view into the mail that they had to get through. It starts with landscape mode, which brings in both the ability to see which messages you have yet to read through, while also being able to view entire emails at once.
“A large number of people use these [devices] as laptop replacements, particularly people on the road a lot who want to take advantage of the lighter weight, the longer battery life, no need to plug it in during the day,” Underwood said. “For those people, we wanted to create an experience that was as good, or better, than they might find on their own laptops.”
To replicate the experience of those so-called road warriors, Underwood even went without a laptop for a while, living only with his mobile phone and tablet, as a way to “build empathy” for the mobile-only email user. While testing it for himself was helpful, Mailbox also relied on the Dropbox testing community to get feedback for the iPad app before release as well.
What the company learned was that just because it had more screen to work with, that didn’t mean it should add unnecessary clutter. Notably, next to the email list and the preview pane, Mailbox doesn’t also give a window into all of the different folders that you can pre-sort items into. Underwood said that the team had tested that out, but found the experience ultimately too busy. So, like the iPhone app, the iPad app hides the list of folders.
“We spent a fair amount of time trying to create an experience that was consistent with what people are used to today,” he said. Even so, the new app takes advantage of the bigger screen to enable longer-form composition, whether that means using the built-in touch-screen keyboard, or some sort of Bluetooth-enabled iPad accessory designed to make composing on the device even easier.
This is the first major release that Mailbox has had since its acquisition by Dropbox. Being part of the larger company means more infrastructure support, and Mailbox has hired a few new faces in engineering since the acquisition. Some of the other advantages include being able to take advantage of Dropbox’s support team, as well as its recruiting, operations, and administrative infrastructure.
While it’s great that Mailbox now has an app for iPhone and iPad, there are still other platforms for it to conquer. What comes next? Android? Desktop?
“We don’t really speak about the specific order of the future [road map], but I will say that people ask us often for an Android app. We hear often requests for a desktop app as well. We’re going as fast as we can to get Mailbox on as many device and get support for as many email providers as we can,” Underwood told me.
Great non-answer, Gentry! For all you non-iPhone or -iPad users, hold your horses while they work to get the app on more devices. In the meantime, check out the video and demo above to get a look at what you can expect from Mailbox for iPad — that is, if you haven’t downloaded it already.