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ActiveInbox in light of Google Inbox

December 16th, 2014

In October 2014 Google announced a new app called Inbox, that seemed on first glance to follow a similar task based approach to email as ActiveInbox has pioneered in Gmail for the last 7 years. And to be honest, we were worried.

While I actually really like most of its design (and we will become increasingly in-tune with it), I was relieved to see that, Google Inbox is built for light personal use – for the moment anyway. And even if they open up for businesses, Inbox enforces a very opinionated and basic workflow, and will likely stay as a mainstream, general app.

ActiveInbox on the other hand provides a task management solution built for business people managing complex workloads in any situation. We are flexible and can be molded to your own existing workflow. Meanwhile we keep all the business critical features that Gmail offers like signatures, advanced filters or desktop notifications, within familiar reach.

More importantly, we exist only because of you, our customers. We work in harmony with our community when we develop new features because we know that everyone deals with their work and email differently, and there is always more to learn about staying calm and productive in today’s frantic work environments.

We are going to continue getting better and offering you ever more refined, intelligent solutions for organizing your emails and your work.

We’ve been very busy preparing new updates to ActiveInbox in the last couple of months since Inbox was announced, and everything will be going into beta before Christmas (including iOS mobile), with a public release to follow shortly after; and come the New Year we have some major new ideas to forge ahead with!

Inbox is a welcome reminder of our vulnerability, as we build ActiveInbox inside Google’s ecosystem. It has made us more determined than ever to deliver the ultimate solution to help you work more productively with less stress – whatever your job.

Google’s Next Big Move Is Capturing Your Task List

December 15th, 2014

Google Inbox’s focus on tasks is a sign that Google is gearing itself up to seize the holy grail of ad targeting: task lists. It is an opportunity to rival search that has remained completely untapped. And Google is perfectly placed to exploit it, within their ecosystem of mobile friendly convenience applications.

Google’s famous search box is such an effective window into your brain at a critical moment in time that it is worth billions of dollars a year- $50 billion actually.

When you search for something you are open to solutions that can come through adverts – far more so than when you are browsing a website. That is why Search is still Google’s most lucrative platform. But it is rapidly losing its dominance in terms of overall ad spending because of the rise of mobile apps. It is a very significant trend that has had analysts wondering this year how Google will respond.

The concise language we use to write down tasks is perhaps even more effective than search for targeted behavioral advertising. Just picture it. Your grocery list neatly entered each week. Or that flight you need to book to New York on Monday. There are companies out there drooling over the idea of their adverts being able to target the sort of information found on our task lists.

The real challenge though is in persuading enough of us to enter our task lists into Google’s servers and making their task manager the dominant one. We generally avoid digital task managers, despite the fact they reduce our stress by turning a daunting workload into a series of manageable steps. That is because they are often just another software program that takes effort and discipline to update. So how can Google get enough of us to start entering our tasks into their servers?

Integrating your task management into the key apps at the center of your life can break down that effort barrier very effectively. Email is a prime candidate because our inbox still plays host to a constant flow of key information and updates about our lives and tasks (despite claims that “email is dead” thanks to the rise of instant messaging). And, as with Twitter or Facebook, the next step to monetization can only come when they achieve mass adoption of their own digital task system.

Enter Inbox. It takes your email client – where you already spend most of your day – and makes it easy to capture the tasks flowing through it. Sure, Reminders have been around on Google Now and Keep for over a year. But Inbox is an attempt to truly integrate Reminders into daily life.

Reminders are simple but also sophisticated. They have powerful auto-complete abilities, and you can even tell Google’s servers exactly when you want assistance by snoozing a Reminder so that it appears at a specific time or location. Notifications appear through Google Now also, which opens up interactions within the growing wearables market.

This is more than just prediction through algorithms and keywords. Google are getting you do the work for them by ensuring that the more data you enter for them, the more useful any future advert will be to you. And of course, the more likely you will click on it.

Inbox also already scans your emails for purchase receipts, travel and event bookings thanks to partnerships with companies in various service industries.

But how is this fantastic set of data going to be actually monetized? I mean, sure, Inbox has a lot of white space, but your not going to open your email one day and BAM! it’s full of pulsing banners ads showing you the latest grocery deals at your favorite supermarket. No, to make Inbox a beloved product it’s going to have to be a masterpiece in subtle advertising, probably resembling the Highlights emails you currently get as a card-like block in Inbox, which also appear in Google Now.

But the beauty of it is that we’ll actually want the adverts. That’s  because rather than being intrusive screen hoggers as most mobile ads are, Google is building the capability to help you actually get tasks done, when you need to do them, with incredibly accurate targeting.

Whether they ever achieve the widespread uptake of digital task management needed for this groundbreaking opportunity to work, rests largely on the success of one app: Inbox.

 

If you’re wondering, “Great, but what does this mean for ActiveInbox?”, read this.

Due Dates not syncing with your calendar immediately? You can force it!

October 14th, 2014

Google Calendar does not update calendars added by URL very regularly – more like once an hour than every minute.

That can be annoying if you are expecting your ActiveInbox due dates to be added immediately (e.g. so that you can head out of the office for a meeting and keep track of what you need to do with your calendar).

Don’t worry! There is a simple workaround that you can use for one-off updates.

  • Find your regular AIB Due Dates URL (e.g. https://aib-ics.s3.amazonaws.com/123.ics), and add ‘?fresh1′ to the end of it (e.g. https://aib-ics.s3.amazonaws.com/123.ics?fresh2). Then add it to GCal as usual.

  • Then in GCal, remove the old AIB Due Dates calendar.

Your calendar should then be right up to date.

If you want to do it again the future, change the number at the end of fresh, e.g. fresh2, fresh3, etc.

Taskbox Tweakin’ [5.1.6]

October 3rd, 2014

Clarification: we didn’t kill Status buttons!

We just changed the default layout to be more minimalist. But there is a way back:

If you go into the Preferences, and re-enable “Show all Status Buttons even when TaskBox in Summary Mode”, the statuses buttons are right there and one click away.

Nurturing muscle memory

The one thing I think we definitely didn’t get right in 5.1 was making the common routine of “add status, archive & move to the next email” easy to turn into a muscle memory.

To remedy this,

  • I made the status button always align with the Archive button (at the cost of hiding the subject until you mouse over it). This means that everything is always in the same position relative to each other.
  • I moved the Finish button (tick) to the end of the Archive/Spam/Delete line. That means the two most important buttons: Archive & Finish are in the two most memorable positions, but we keep the Gmail tradition of making Archive first.
  • Once you set your first task or due date, ActiveInbox now permanently hides the ‘+ Make Task’ help text.

Reducing visual weight

Our original goal with the Taskbox was to bring a coherent focal point to the “email task”, and that meant incorporating the subject.

The cost, as we used a background colour to tie it all together, was a weighty visual anchor that unsettled the human spirit.

To fix it, I just let go of my desire for theoretical coherence, and went with something that in practice feels just as natural – the subject now sits above the Taskbox, not in it – which feels a lot more airy.

Fixing Minor Glitches

  • The Taskbox now remembers the state you left it in
  • For a small % of users, the Taskbox was interfering with the subject line. It no longer does this!

A word about Send Later issues

We’ve had to move the Send Later feature back into beta for the next week.

We took this rather drastic step because for a % of the user population, and for reasons we haven’t yet fully diagnosed, it was randomly failing.

And trust is everything with this feature. Until we’re 100% sure that 100% of you can trust it 100%, we’re adding a warning label.

(If you’re interested, here are the details).

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.

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