Who could have predicted the death of Mailbox?
Yesterday, Dropbox disappointed the tech elite with the “sudden” closing of Mailbox.
There was an unusual amount of wailing and gnashing on Twitter for an app that was long ago acqui-hired and forgotten by most. To many it was a sign of just how fleeting heat can be online. Two and a half years ago Mailbox had an 800,000 person waiting list. It was top five on the app store. Its promotional video went viral.
The conventional wisdom is that heat is worth something. It doesn’t just dissipate. So when it does over two years, the tech world wants an explanation, catharsis ... or something.
Was this some cautionary tale of the perils of an acquirer who doesn’t share your laser-focused mission? Was the “waiting list” marketing strategy a colossal mistake in hindsight? Who could have predicted such a rapid descent from must-have to no-one-has for something as core to our daily lives as email?
Turns out, Bryan Goldberg back in 2013. In fact, back then he pronounced them “already dead.” Oddly enough, his reason why wasn’t brought up in the many explanations for how Mailbox could have gone from so hot to so not, at least in what I read. But he was dead right.
As a reminder, here's what Bryan wrote back then...
Wham, bam, thank you Mailbox
By Bryan Goldberg
Things sure are looking great for the beta release of Orchestra Inc.’s new mobile application, Mailbox. Their app is in the Top 5 of the iTunes store, a massive accomplishment and opportunity indeed.
Their promotional video has gone viral, providing a beautiful Apple-inspired overview of their product, set to hipster music.
Their marketing strategy — forcing people to wait in line for weeks to use the application — is brilliant and brilliantly disguised as a product QA rollout strategy.
Their world-class investors, including CrunchFund, SV Angel, and Charles River must be salivating over their fast traction and mighty $5 million venture war chest.
If there were one minor kink in the company’s armor, though… one tiny almost imperceptible flaw, then it would probably be this:
They are already dead.
According to my copy of the app, there are 371,228 users in front of me in line, and 291,093 users behind me in line. That is a lot of users, not counting the ones who are already enjoying the app. So why should they even care about one blogger’s opinion?
Because I have a memory of over five years, and I’ve seen a lot of “companies” come and go, because, well… they weren’t really “companies." In fact, I have trouble believing that Mailbox is even a “product”.
In reality, all of this attention is really about a “feature” — specifically, a user’s ability to procrastinate their email into a clever little to-do list. (After all, Orchestra Inc.’s original product was a to-do list.)
The idea of "snoozing" an email for later, and being able to classify it as an urgent email that requires response later today vs. one that requires response somewhere along the line — well, it’s brilliant.
I am dying to have that feature. That feature would make my life way easier. With the exception of my dry cleaning and grocery responsibilities, I can’t think of many tasks or meetings that aren’t prompted by an email of some sort.
Virtually each of the dozen tasks I had last Thursday and Friday were triggered by an email that I got — my lawyer telling me to sign something, a colleague asking me for advice, a resume from a job candidate, a friend reminding me that tickets go on sale for a concert that I want to see...
So, the executives at Orchestra Inc. are on to something.
And, while I look forward to being allowed to use their Mailbox application, what I really look forward to is when Google writes the few lines of code necessary to provide that functionality to my existing proprietary Gmail app.
And this is what Orchestra Inc. doesn’t seem to get. They are not a company or a product -- they are a feature.
This is timely, because today Snapchat announced a big venture round from a top tier VC. Is it any coincidence that this round has occurred roughly two months after surviving their first great test — the failed Facebook "Poke" app...
Snapchat is in the fight of their life. They need to prove that they are more than a feature. More than a product. They have $13.5 million with which to prove that they are a company.
Evidently, Facebook’s vain and botched effort to replicate the "exploding private message" has convinced Benchmark Capital that Snapchat is at the very least a product.
But the same could have been said about Viddy, who proved to be a decent product when they raised $36 million and discovered that Twitter’s Vine can do a lot of the same stuff — and so that company will not succeed at doing what companies do... returning money to stakeholders.
So many of these platform apps — be it in the iTunes Store or in the graveyard of Facebook Platform widgets — have failed the journey from feature to product to company.
They end up being a fling.
Users fall in love with them for a few weeks, talk about their romance with all of those old clichés — “you’ve changed my life” or “I’m never going back” — but we know how this ends. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.
At some point, every user will have that revelation — true love and monogamy are more powerful forces than the Tech world wants to admit. We have two very good applications for mail — Apple and Gmail — and both of them will release a "snooze" feature within the next few months. And, when they do, we will fondly remember our brief romance with Mailbox.
We will remember that one amazing feature... The one that we embellish with wistful laughter as we tell our friends about it, late night drink in hand.
Then we go home to our spouse.