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Mailbox for iPhone targets the "broken to-do list" of email

Feeling oppressed by your inbox? Struggling under the weight of unread messages? You're not alone. With half a billion results for "manage my/your email" there's obviously a need for help. Now add in the new wrinkle: many of us are interacting with email primarily or exclusively via our mobile devices, something that the legacy POP and IMAP protocols were never truly built to handle.

Big problems need smart solutions: enter Mailbox, a free app and matching cloud pre-processor for mobile email. The team behind the iOS and web to-do app Orchestra decided to bring its savvy to the email challenge after the experience of trying to manage tasks without integrating the inbox proved frustrating. "In hindsight, it was obvious," said CEO Gentry Underwood. Even with the power of Orchestra in hand, "people kept sending us tasks by email."

Underwood doesn't mince words about the effectiveness of email for task management: "Email is a broken to-do list," he says, and "the way we live our lives on email is ridiculous... marking messages unread, sending things to ourselves" -- all symptoms of a round peg in a square hole. For a fuller rundown of what's not right about email, read Underwood's manifesto on TechCrunch and his interview with AllThingsD.

Mailbox's approach to dealing with the onslaught is to optimize the heck out of your inbox, specifically tuning it to the mobile experience. The company's cloud servers download and compress your messages from Gmail; the app gives you tools for quickly reading, replying, snoozing ("I want to see this tomorrow morning") and sorting your email. Mailbox tries to keep your attention on critical items while allowing you to do email triage, catching opportunities to deal with messages where and when you can in short bursts of engagement.

The app's previews to a selected few testers have garnered some raves, and today's launch of the app is bound to excite many more... if they can use it.

Aside from the Gmail-only support in the initial release, users of Mailbox may need to wait in line. The company is scaling out its middleman servers to match demand as it builds, and in order to avoid overloading new users will be added to the system by reservation only. Mailbox has been accepting reservation requests since late January, and now that the app is available for download it's going to start to fulfill them -- queued users will get a text message with a signup link and activation code, and away they go. The app will even tell you where you are in the queue until you get your magic stamp of approval. (I requested a reservation on January 27, and there are only 228,431 people in front of me. Shouldn't be long now!)

The pace of reservation fulfillment may seem slow at first, but the company says it should accelerate as the shakedown period for the infrastructure continues. This tiered access may be somewhat atypical for an App Store release, but Underwood says it's the only way to fairly and reliably bootstrap the service. When it comes to the scaling process, Orchestra has done all it can, but "we don't know what we don't know," he says, and "email just has to work." Rather than opening the floodgates and seeing what breaks, the plan is to "add users as fast as we can, but no faster." Mailbox is free at launch and intended to remain so, with premium buy-up features planned down the line.

If the app UI sounds confusing, check out this demo video. It's swipe, swipe and hold, and act upon -- all very easy once you get the hang of it. If you're already on the reservation list and ready to start Mailboxing, let us know your impressions in the comments.

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