Few apps have managed to generate as much hype as Mailbox, a new email client for the iPhone. The company behind Mailbox, Orchestra, first teased the app late last year. Mailbox made its triumphant debut in the App Store this past week. Our own John Brownlee gave it a glowing review and called it, “a flawless execution of a great idea that will completely change how you deal with email.” Sounds promising, no?
Most apps do private beta testing until they’re ready to be unleashed on the world. Orchestra, the app company behind Mailbox, has done things differently. You can download Mailbox in the App Store, but the vast majority of people can’t actually use it right now. There’s a reservation system in place that shows where you are in line and how many people are behind you.
There are currently over 800,000 subscribers to Mailbox, and the vast majority are still waiting to be let in. Frustrated you can’t use Mailbox right away? There’s a good reason you have to wait.
“We’re using a reservation system to scale the Mailbox service gracefully,” says Orchestra. “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.”
The app’s server magic is the reason it can do cool things like quickly file emails away for you to read later. There needs to be caching support for when your iPhone is in Airplane Mode as well. Mailbox also does its own push notifications (that are way faster than Apple’s stock Mail app). All of this takes a lot of cloud-based processing power.
The Mailbox service has been designed to “to scale indefinitely,” according to Orchestra. The reservation system is meant to gradually test the amount of strain Mailbox’s servers can handle.
Initially, the pace that users are let into Mailbox may seem slow. “This is by design,” assures Orchestra. “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.”
So it may feel like forever right now, but the gates will be flung upon wide eventually.
“It creates this sense of urgency.”
There’s no denying that Orchestra has gone with a genius marketing tactic here. There’s a reason you not only see how many people are in front of you and behind you in line. It creates this sense of urgency. A quick check of Twitter will show how many people are complaining about the thousands of users “in front of them.” Right after Mailbox debuted in the App Store, people started digging through the app’s code to try and find a way in to little avail. One Cult of Mac reader even calculated average waiting times based on the current rate that users are being let in.
Mailbox is pretty cool, but it’s just an email app. It won’t radically change your life. I can see Orchestra’s faux “launch” letting a lot of people down when they finally get in the app and realize that it’s not the greatest thing ever. It’s very good, but hopes tend to get raised to unreasonable heights when there’s a long wait involved.
Was it right for Orchestra to release its hot, new app without actually letting everyone use it? You may feel disgruntled about the waiting list, but opening the app every five minutes to check your place in line only affirms what Orchestra clearly knows already: we all want what we can’t have.