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Well, THAT was a day…

September 24th, 2014

Hi everyone,

I was really looking forward, after 3 months of ludicrous intensity, to having a bit of a celebration with the launch of 5.1.


Except that one tiny oversight – aka the spark – and a secretly ticking time bomb, conspired to make this evening one of the most fraught periods we’ve ever had.

What happened?

One of the ‘plumbing’ features (as in it wasn’t a feature you could use, but it worked with our server behind the scenes) that was only of utility to paid users, was accidentally left turned on for free users (from our early freemium years).

That meant that by the time 5.1 had finished auto-updating for all our users, we had massively greater demand on our servers than we expected.

Cue very unhappy servers that slowed to a crawl under the unexpected burden.

Why did that affect Firefox?

One of our early developers had unwisely made one of ActiveInbox’s critical requests to the server lock the browser up until it got a response.

While technically this is a bad thing to do, no one spotted it because when our server was healthy and responding instantly, you’d never notice.

But as soon as the server slowed down, Firefox started feeling like it was locking up for seconds at a time.

How did we tackle it?

Tom, Adhip & I frantically began trying to understand what was happening. Once we had it understood, we began fixing everything.

But we were in a slightly unusual situation in that discovering & developing the fix didn’t instantly make everything better. We had to wait a few hours for everyone to upgrade to the new version (5.1.2) before the demand on our server started to level off, and individuals were able to work smoothly again.

What’s the moral of the story?

First, never assume that even with 1000s of beta testers stress testing a new version, that launch day will go smoothly. We’ll always over-power our servers on launch day in future, just in case.

We don’t actually like doing ‘big’ launches and this has further increased our caution: there’s simply too much shock with changes, and too much that can go wrong with big new systems. We’ll be switching back to a mostly incremental approach. (Although I confess I did at least enjoy the response to unveiling something like 5.1, which we’re massively proud of). The benefit to you is that we’ll be rolling out little refinements faster!

And as we continue to change the way our servers work, today has been undeniably educational. We’ve learnt more in the last few hours than in the last 3 months. We’ll walk more confidently down the path of revamping the servers to robustly handle unexpected demand (if you’re interested, we’ll do this primarily by breaking it up into independent, optimised components; and building on Amazon’s world class infrastructure).

Thank you

Ultimately, I (Andy) just want to apologise. The reason we were so frantic (and I had the doubly harrowing job of trying to relay what was going on to the forum while simultaneously trying to figure it all out), is because I hate letting you all down, even for an afternoon.

And my gratitude to everyone on the forum who first reported it, and then patiently gave us updates as time went on. As ever, you were wonderfully helpful – thank you!

Unveiling ActiveInbox 5.1

September 24th, 2014

Welcome, welcome!

Before we start, let me (Andy) just thank everyone who has been involved over the summer… It started with the ‘Feature Requests’ survey we did in June (which had a great response), and I duly began a ‘few weeks’ of work to implement them (which lasted for two months), and then entered a ‘few days’ of Beta testing (which lasted 3 weeks), and at the cost of one British Summer and several more grey hairs, here is 5.1 :)

(Actually, it’s Tom who created the performance & stability improvements, Adhip who built lots of new features, and Sam & Lisa who kept the community served during that time!).

Our goal was simple: add powerful new features, and make ActiveInbox a refined thing of brilliance and (comparable) beauty.

Just bask in the intro video

The Big New Features

Send Emails Later

You can now schedule emails to be sent automatically whenever you want. You’ll find it useful if you don’t want to have someone instantly reply to you and so distract you from other work that you are doing. Or, say you work odd hours, at weekends or on holiday. You can just set emails to be sent only during working hours so people don’t think your constantly working and so constantly available. You can chose any time or day to the nearest 15 minutes and ActiveInbox will take care of the rest.

Send Later box

 

 

Make sure nothing falls through the net

Another useful feature we’ve added is Auto-waiting on; effectively the ability to catch any emails you’ve sent and haven’t had a reply to, but that you forgot to mark as waiting on when you sent them.

Auto Waiting-On button at top of Waiting On list.

This is especially useful if you’re a new user or if you’ve fallen behind or taken a break from ActiveInbox. You can make sure you have not missed any important emails that should be marked waiting-on.

It’s also great to hunt down old email that didn’t get a reply when they were not so important, and now have become more critical a few months on: say, a project with a vague and faraway deadline which, 5 months later has now become an imminent and urgent deadline.

Auto-sync due dates to your Calendar

Our most requested feature in the survey was the ability to sync your due-dates with Google Calendar and get a birds eye view of all your tasks. So now, you can do just that. Go to any due date drop-down in an email and click on “more” at the bottom.

URL for creating new auto-syncing calendar

All your due dates can now automatically sync with your new calendar. You can also sync with any other calendar you use such as iCal or Outlook by pasting the supplied web address into your browser and then downloading the ics file.

Refining Usability

Your new zen Task Box

One of the most noticeable changes has been in the task bar area and where the old ActiveInbox buttons for processing emails used to be.

New email taskbar

We’ve streamlined the whole process and re-designed it so that the standard Gmail buttons are left alone and we no longer add any clutter.

  • The label (Project) drop-downs have been condensed into a tabbed ‘Add to’ button which should be much faster to navigate.
  • Search for labels from the ‘Add To’ dropdown.
  • There are now three different levels of compression for the task bar – we allow you to have a very thin top section but still see and edit your to-do’s, notes, statuses and labels.

  

We are trying to declutter your Gmail, take up less vertical space so you can read emails without scrolling so much, and get out of your way when you want. The new task bar will remember the last state of expansion when you return to the inbox and the next time you open an email will return to that state. So if you want to keep it minimalist, you can without trawling through preference menu’s.

Easier Navigation through Projects

We’ve given you better options with which to navigate and access Project folders.

  • We have removed the New section and instead added a check-box to see new emails in the Task and Mail views, to reduce clutter and scrolling.
  • You can also now include sub-folders in your Task and Mail views, so you can get a birds eye view from a major folder.

In the task lists, we made Due Dates and Statuses stand out more so they’re easier to scan

We added the much requested re-ordering of To-do’s

New move-nexters that are much faster to use, and are integrated into standard Gmail buttons

We were wrongly duplicating Gmail’s Action buttons for too long. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

Now, when you mouse over a regular Gmail Action button (e.g. Archive), our Move Nexters will appear just above it.

Never forget to update statuses and to-do’s when you reply

When you send a reply, get reminded to change the status or to update your to-do’s with the new “Send-And” bar – so that if you forgot you can update things quickly and move to the next email without scrolling to the top again.

Handling Any Nasty Shocks

First, please give the changes a day to sink in before shouting at us!

About a 1000 of you have been testing and improving it for the last few weeks, and given it their general stamp of approval.

You can have status buttons back in the Task Box

We think that, even though it adds an extra click, the new status dropdown in the TaskBox is really clean (during one-line mode).

But if you really want to see all your status buttons at all times, go into our preferences, and enable ‘Show all Status Buttons even when TaskBox in Summary Mode’.

Send Later can take up to 15 minutes to send

This is just about expectations: the time you choose is a 15 minute sending slot. E.g. if you choose to send at 8am tomorrow, it’ll be sent somewhere between 8am and 8:15am.

Thus do not worry if, when you test it, you don’t see the email get sent the moment 8am rolls around!

A useful bit of tech info:

  • If for whatever reason it does fail, it’ll always send you a message to let you know, so you can at least rectify it.
  • The emails you choose to Send Later are stored in Drafts while they’re waiting to go.

Installing 5.1

It should auto-update to 5.1 (actually 5.1.1 at time of writing). Chrome does this in 30 minutes – then you just need to refresh Gmail. Firefox can take a day. Safari… is a mystery ;)

Should you wish to force it, just go to the Install Page, install it (no need to uninstall first), then refresh Gmail.

Imminent plans for perfecting service robustness

September 12th, 2014

The vigilant amongst you will spot this post is (less than) coincidentally following a morning of server downtime.

We’ve been with the same website hosts for many years, and while their support staff are marvellous, we’ve been prone to bouts of downtime (in solidarity with them, I don’t think it’s entirely their fault – ActiveInbox probably pushed the limits of what they could handle).

A few weeks ago we began the move to Amazon. We started with the most dangerous bit: moving the data over. This is now safely stored on Amazon’s servers.

The ActiveInbox-serving and website parts of the server will also move to Amazon this month.

In addition to providing world-class robustness, they offer a suite of complimentary services, to give us more options for providing temporary cover if the worst happens, and to be notified to wake us up if the servers go down over night.

Which just leaves me to apologise. I’m incredibly sorry for this morning’s downtime, it’s one of the few things in running ActiveInbox that can cause chest-clamping periods of stress, knowing that it’s affecting all of you.

Right — I’m going back to working on 5.1 now (I’m hoping to get the next Beta release out today).

ActiveInbox 5.1 is on the way folks!

August 29th, 2014

We released the Beta of ActiveInbox 5.1 on Thursday morning and we’ve already had a huge amount of productive feedback on it. Andy is feverishly working on improvements already and the team is buzzing about the prospect of the finished version coupled with an imminent release of the AIB mobile app!

There are several big new features based on votes from our feature request survey in June, and there has been a big design push generally to de-clutter the interface, and make things faster, sleeker, smoother, prettier, … you get the picture.

Our brilliant founder was up early in the morning on Beta launch day to do the notorious ‘ice bucket challenge’ on a windy Brighton beach. A classic bracing start to a long day’s work. I’m posting the resulting video here without his knowledge, so lets hope he doesn’t notice too quickly and take it down!

 

 

Disclaimer: Living in Brighton, by the sea, we’re obviously immune from any criticism of callous water wastage.

Scheduled Downtime: Tue 22nd July, 9:15BST, for 30 mins.

July 21st, 2014

Hi everyone,

Just a heads up – we’ll have intermittent service for about 30 minutes tomorrow morning, at 9:15AM BST (it may affect ActiveInbox detecting your Plus account, being able to save Preferences, saving To Dos & Notes, and saving changes to the order/rank of emails – but it’ll clearly tell you when it cannot reach the server, so you won’t be deceived into thinking something worked that didn’t).

This is the beginning of us moving to a more robust server set up, so it’s a little upfront pain for long term gain.

ActiveInbox up and running after a Gmail change

June 9th, 2014

Hi everyone,

I’ll go into a little more detail in a second, but the important thing is:

ActiveInbox 5.0.12 is working fine again. You can get update instructions at the Install page.


I know some of you were deeply frustrated it went down, so I’d like to clarify a few things to hopefully put your mind at ease.

We’re built over Gmail, which has great benefits (like making an already world-class mail client better), but is prone to break when Gmail changes every few months.

Our commitment has always been to fix ActiveInbox within 48 hours of any Gmail change, and this time we managed it in about 24 hours.

To be honest, it probably would have been faster than that, but despite becoming aware on Sunday, we couldn’t see the change in our test accounts until the early hours of Monday morning, and so I couldn’t experience it to fix it.

(There was also a compound problem for an hour, where our server went down at 7:00am BST. I believe this was caused by our server being overwhelmed by the automatic warnings sent to us when a Gmail change occurs. I’m waiting to hear from our server company on the exact cause, and then I’ll figure out a way to stop that particular situation occurring again).


I’d like to say a thank you to everyone who broke the news that a change was happening, and a special thank you to Lisa for trying to keep everyone aware of what was going on during Sunday while I frustratedly waited for the change to come to us.

Little patch for ActiveInbox [5.0.11]

June 4th, 2014

Hi everyone,

A very quick post – I’ve just pushed 5.0.11, which fixes:

  • The Today view could not be opened (but the Radar was still working!), after a Gmail change.
  • Send and Move Next wasn’t always moving older, and sometimes didn’t actually send (only if you held down a keyboard accelerator like Alt, so thankfully it didn’t affect many people). Thanks mz for help on this.
  • Google Hangouts couldn’t be shown at the same time as our sidebar

I believe this is all the critical issues!

Updating

In Chrome, it should have auto-updated by now – just refresh Gmail (if that doesn’t work, go to your Extensions list in Chrome, and ask it to refresh all extensions, then refresh Gmail).

In Firefox and Safari, if it hasn’t auto updated yet, go into your Extensions list and ask for it to update extensions, then refresh Gmail.

Why we’re raising the price and dropping freemium (but we are introducing referrals!)

May 21st, 2014

I like to be really transparent with how we make decisions, and as I’ve not updated the blog for a few weeks, I think this is a ripe time to share a big one!


We’ve always said we’d raise the price when we released V5, to reflect the increase in functionality; and we’ve been slowly rolling out the new price over the last few months.

We also took the more controversial decision to remove freemium for new users, making ActiveInbox a trial/paid product only.

I’m going to briefly explain why we chose to make the changes.


The primary reason, if you’re short of time, is that when we can increase income, we can make ActiveInbox better. It’s no secret that as a bootstrapped company, we’ve never actually made profit: every cent we earn goes back into developing the product (and the company). And this is especially true now that we have three world class developers contributing, and two intuitively gifted designers on retainer.


The price is easy enough to explain, for all new customers we are now $39.95/yr (our only price rise since we began charging in 2010). Everyone who supported us in our early days (i.e. originally paid $25/yr) will be grand-fathered into still paying $25/yr as a thank you.


Ending freemium was a more difficult decision, but ultimately the data backs it up.

Our main reasons are:

  • I never felt comfortable with the worse experience for people using ActiveInbox Free.

    It had to have annoying reminder boxes for missing features, and it was, of course, *missing* features: that means people on Free forget all that it can do, and are not getting the benefits that we so excitedly spent the last few years building.

  • Free users dilute support.

    We never complained about this: anyone who has written into us was appreciated, and almost everyone had an impact on improving the product. But as a bootstrapped company with limited resources, we don’t have infinite support resources, and it is unfair that Free users were getting equal priority as people who had paid.

    This point is more than just time spent responding to enquiries: we also make product changes when people write to us. The fair and right thing to do is prioritise product development for Plus customers, which isn’t as easy when we’re also supporting Free users.

  • Very few people actually keep using ActiveInbox on Free. (And of the people who wanted Plus, 85% of people upgraded within the first 3 weeks).

    This reinforces the first point, that ActiveInbox Free simply isn’t very desirable. I personally think I made the wrong choice with how we originally implemented freemium: my rationale was to restrict features in free mode to just things that help turn emails into tasks, and Plus was designed to help you get those done. But in reality, users forget what Plus does, and simply go on with a limited product.

    (A smarter decision may have been to make all functionality available, but restrict the number of tasks/projects you can create – but I really hate the psychological fear that induces… people seem to self limit their usage rather than spend money, whereas if you just pay up front, you’re freed from worry and can just focus on getting things done).


But the happy news is that we’ve also added two little pill sweeteners:

  1. If you didn’t get a chance to use ActiveInbox much during the trial, ActiveInbox will let you to extend it when you’re ready. And if you help us out by filling in a survey (that will directly influence how we improve ActiveInbox in V6), we’ll add another week to your trial.
  2. Plus users can refer a friend, and you both get an extra month of Plus. Just click the cube icon in the top right to bring down the ActiveInbox Menu, and then click the ‘Refer’ button.

Understanding the 3rd March morning downtime

March 3rd, 2014

Hi everyone,

My deep apologies for this morning’s downtime.

It wasn’t actually a problem with the app. Instead our server’s security certificate – the one that allows you to log into ActiveInbox securely – had expired and the new certificate had not come online.

This meant that some ActiveInbox features were disabled (principally the To Dos and Notes).

Renewing certificates is an annual process, involving multiple vendors, and to be totally transparent, is one area that we don’t have a deep expertise in. I accept total accountability for the failure.

As a remedy, next year we’ll engage a consultant with the required expertise to handle this for us, to prevent it happening again.

Clarifications

Delayed Communication

We didn’t first tweet it until 11am GMT. This is all rather mundane detail, but to be as transparent as possible… This morning I elected to work from home for a few hours, where there’s currently no internet, to allow me to deep-dive into some product work without distraction. Normally this is fine, but obviously today everything went wrong. Lisa, who’s not technical, finally realised the breadth of the situation at 10:30 and rose the alarm with me, at which point I came into the office. All problems were resolved by 12:30 GMT.

I’m totally empathetic that the lack of communication was particularly difficult, and as a remedy:
1) I’ll make sure my personal mobile is pinged if the server is unreachable.
2) Lisa will be emboldened to raise the flag sooner in future.

ActiveInbox’s Feature Dependency on the Server

ActiveInbox is in fact already modular, so that when the server communication is lost, the only things that *should* be disabled are To Dos/Notes/Ranking (i.e. the bits that absolutely need the server).

I gather that on Firefox especially, for some people ActiveInbox’s functionality loss was more severe. I’ll be extensively checking the failure mode.

I’m also going to increase our ability to communicate in-app during downtime, especially for notification that everything is ok again.

ActiveInbox 5.0 is going live

February 18th, 2014

(If you were on the Beta, please go back to the mainstream release to resume automatic updates).



After a year of trying and refining new features (with your feedback – thank you!), we’ve finally clicked the last couple of pieces of the jigsaw in place… ActiveInbox 5.0 is ready for all existing users.

What were those last two pieces? Speed & beauty!

ActiveInbox now feels instantaneous

Tom has been incredibly busy ripping out the battered, rusty old engine of ActiveInbox, and putting a brand new sports engine in its place.

I can’t stress how big a change this is… It’s not a simple bit of optimisation work (although we did that too), it’s 22,000 new lines of code.

So now when you load Gmail, click Action, set a due date, or change something in Active Results, it happens in the blink of an eye.

Beautifying ActiveInbox

A caveat: everyone who’s tried the beta has initially had a shock when seeing the changes. It takes about a day to get used to them. So when you upgrade, if you have an urgent desire to tell us about a visual tweak, please please sleep on it first! If it still bothers you after a couple of days, then let’s discuss it :)

With the help of the very talented James Beer of Logo Logo, we began making the interface absolutely coherent and so a joy to use (not just pretty!). I won’t bore you with every little detail, suffice it to say we did obsess over the little details.

Colour and Icons Have Meaning

Generally speaking, blue means ‘do something at your leisure’, and red is for the urgent Today or Overdue.

Also, if you set colours for labels in regular Gmail, ActiveInbox will make use of them.

We Defined ‘Task’ and ‘To Do’

We used to prevaricate on what to call a conversation that has a status/due-date, mostly calling them “to do”s or “active”. We’re now, rightly, calling them what they are: Tasks.

And by freeing up the phrase “to do”, we were able to stop using the ugly phrase “Next Steps”. Now a conversation can have a checklist of To Dos.

The Group By and Sort By menus are hidden until needed

We’ve been hearing that the Group By and Sort By dropdowns were confusing for new users, and were also just visually distracting for everybody else

So we did the kind thing, and tucked them into a menu icon where they can be expanded only when needed.

Other Things You Should Know

We removed the noisy/distracting cube that opened the Action Bar for each row in the Inbox. Instead, you now check the rows you want to change, and click the cube on the header bar.

Coming up next…

I’ll be mostly handling support for the next few weeks, smoothing out any remaining kinks.

I also want to keep tweaking the experimental Focus Mode based on your feedback, but we’re pretty much feature locked for the next few months. It’s time to spread the word a little!

On the topic of spreading the word, if you wish to write a review on the Chrome Webstore (or tweet out, or write something on your blog, etc.) it would be INCREDIBLY appreciated! We’ve never really done promotion, it’s all been word of mouth, and as our customer base grows we can afford more resources to develop faster – so it’s a very virtuous circle :)

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