Review: Upgrading old-fashioned snail mail with an iPad app

Credit: Outbox

Earlier this week, I checked my inbox for the first time in a month.

I'm not talking about my email, which is unsalvageable at this point. I'm referring to the old-fashioned physical receptacle for receiving letters — remember those? After a successful pilot program in Austin, a company called Outbox, which modernizes the snail mail experience by digitizing all of it, arrived in San Francisco in February to change the way people interact with their mail. Armed with a fleet of "unpostmen," Outbox collects users' correspondence and brings it to a processing center where letters are scanned and uploaded online. Users don't ever have to interact with their mailboxes. Instead, they get an email notification when new items are available for viewing.

Getting started

Launching Outbox entailed creating a postal network from scratch, said co-founders Will Davis and Evan Baehr, former classmates at Harvard Business School. "Basically, the user signs up and within about 30 seconds, we make them paperless — all their postal mail, paper correspondence now comes in an app, on the iPhone, iPad or desktop," Davis said. "As a result, the user has a painless paperless experience."

After signing up for the service, which costs $5 a month after a free month’s trial, it asks for an image of your mailbox key, if applicable. A well-lit smartphone photo is usually enough detail for Outbox to duplicate a key, but in my instance, the company sent an unpostman to retrieve and duplicate physical copies of my mailbox and building keys (the latter to reach the former).

I was initially hesitant to hand these over to a perfect stranger, but both the company and unpostman reassured me that my keys would be used only for mail retrieval and that they would be destroyed or returned upon termination of service. Once set up — either for an individual or all members of a single residence — the unpostmen swing by three days a week to pick up mail and drop off any packages at the door.

From mailbox to iPad

Inside Outbox's processing facilities in Austin and San Francisco are custom-built imaging machines designed to bring the scans to life. "It's not a flatbed scanner, but one with more 3D and more depth to it, to get the detail of that handwritten calligraphy letter inviting you to your cousin's wedding," Davis said.

Managing mail means interacting with a website, iPhone app, or (my personal favorite) a beautifully designed iPad app. Users can file letters into folders, request physical copies, or unsubscribe from junk mail. With mail on auto pilot, this is convenient for people on the road or expats who live abroad.

To save time, standard class (bulk) mail isn't scanned. This makes sense with catalogs and coupons (things I'd occasionally request), but on a few instances, these were nondescript letters. Unsure of what was inside, I'd ask for the originals. Outbox was usually right about it being junk, but I'd rather skip this process and have Outbox open and scan such letters for me.

Because I opted for Outbox to collect the mail for everyone in my household, I would also get the correspondence of previous tenants. The terms of service say users eligible to use Outbox if they're 18, comply with its user agreement and have "the authority to act on behalf of other persons in [their] household." That described my home, but I certainly didn't get permission from people who used to live here. Yet in front of me were scans of their opened letters — all of it junk, in total I received 12 items that didn’t belong to current members of my household — which enters into legal gray area, since mail tampering is a federal offense.

Security

Security was a big concern when creating Outbox, so the company put in security measures every step of the way. The unpostmen who collect mail go through stricter background checks than postal service workers, the co-founders said. Once letters are scanned, they're protected with 256-bit AES encryption. "We learned through this process that the No. 1 source of identity theft is stolen physical mail," Baehr said. Any mail that's not requested is shredded and recycled after 60 days, a recent increase from the previously set limit of 30 days. Adding to that is customer service. "Customer service is the number one reason that people are entrusting us with their most private and confidential information, so having excellent customer service like Zappos or Amazon is really important," Davis said.

In my experience — from setting up my account to closing it — representatives were friendly and helpful. As a going away present, Outbox even dropped off a T-shirt along with my keys and a handwritten note lamenting my departure (a very nice touch).

Bottom line

Outbox has revolutionized the way we think about and interact with mail, creating an effortless, paperless experience for users. The biggest pain with snail mail is sifting through all the rubbish to find what’s important, so it was convenient to file away and unsubscribe from junk instead of having it accumulate on my desk. Personally, though, I’ve never found fault with the mailbox — we got along just fine. It was a nice reprieve to skip this stop on my way to home, but I don't think the quality of my life was significantly improved with Outbox or hindered without.

(All images courtesy Outbox.)

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