An interesting thing happened last summer.
Once upon a time (back in 2011), small Paris-based start-up Sparrow launched a new email client that promptly took off in popularity thanks to its simple design philosophy and heavy focus on intuitive interface elements. It started on the desktop, but soon a mobile version made its way to consumers just over a year later.
Sparrow was built with Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG ) Gmail service in mind, but it was exclusively made for Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) platforms. Eventually, Sparrow expanded to support iCloud and other email protocols. I was an early adopter of Sparrow and it was my personal email client of choice. The Mac version came first, followed by the iPhone version, and an iPad-optimized version was in the works. That was until Google acquired it.
The reason this acquisition was so interesting is that the search giant was acquiring a small developer that primarily focused on developing for Apple platforms, even if it initially used Gmail on the backend. The bad news for early adopters like myself was that after Big G acquired Sparrow, there wouldn't be any more major improvements, although the company has pushed out incremental updates since then.
Will Mailbox suffer the same fate?
This sounds familiar
Mailbox is another email app that's been developed by start-up Orchestra. The story is uncannily similar to Sparrow. Mailbox has garnered considerable attention due to its innovative interface and simple design aesthetic. The app effectively treats your email inbox as a to-do list (Orchestra also offers a to-do app that won an award from Apple in 2011), and is navigated with a series of simple and intuitive gestures. Mailbox also is currently exclusive to iOS and was built to integrate with Gmail.
Unlike Sparrow, Mailbox supports push notifications. Sparrow did not offer push because it would need its own servers, and Sparrow wasn't comfortable with the security risks associated with such a responsibility. Mailbox has no such aversion, but in order to ensure a smooth rollout that doesn't overwhelm its servers, it has instituted a reservation system like standing in line. As of right now, there are over 750,000 people in line waiting to use a free email app. The app launched last Thursday.
Source: Screenshot from author's iPhone.
Needless to say, Mailbox is already rather popular, and most people have never even actually used the darn thing. Mailbox's tale is reminiscent of Sparrow's, but will it have a different ending?
Apple needs to acquire Orchestra. Now.
Before it's too late
In recent years, Apple has lagged when it comes to interface design, an area where it historically excels at. It wasn't until iOS 6 that the company adopted the commonly used "pull-to-refresh" gesture that third-party apps had long implemented.
More importantly, Google has made dramatic improvements in interface because it has focused heavily in that department. Back in 2010, the search giant hired Matias Duarte out of Palm when the company was on its deathbed. While webOS was a commercial failure, it was initially lauded by industry pundits specifically because of its intuitive interface gestures, and Duarte brought many of these to Android.
Third-party developers have shown incredible innovation over the past couple of years, which frequently ends up with them getting acquired.
With Scott Forstall's departure and Jony Ive becoming the head of interface, Apple has a chance to start fresh with reinvigorating interface innovation. Ive has historically been a hardware guy, heading up industrial design, and has an unproven track record in software.
One of Orchestra's software engineers is Adam Cue, son of Apple online services exec Eddy Cue. This would make a meet-and-greet particularly feasible.
It's not as if Apple has anything better to do with all that cash. Besides, if Apple doesn't acquire Orchestra, chances are Google will. In fact, I'll go on record with a prediction that within the next 12 months, Orchestra will get acquired by a tech giant. Let's hope that tech giant is Apple.
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