Mailpile’s tech lead, Bjarni Einarsson, was in his apartment giving an interview the evening of August 7 when donations reached 40,000 USD, less than one week into its campaign on crowdfunding website, IndieGoGo. Three weeks later Mailpile has raised 121,890 USD, exceeding its goal of raising 100,000 USD, and there are still 14 days to go.
At the OHM Festival 2013 in the Netherlands—a Burning Man for the tech/intellect inclined—Bjarni Einarsson, Smári McCarthy, and Brennan Novak announced the launch of a new Reykjavík-based project called Mailpile, described on its website as “a modern, fast web-mail client with user-friendly encryption and privacy features. 100% Free and Open Source software.” They have high hopes that Mailpile will be a more secure, efficient, likely intriguing, and empowering improvement on widely used providers like Gmail and Hotmail.
Innovation in the hot tub
“I’ve been working on Mailpile off and on for two years. It started as a hobby project, just experimenting with building a search engine for email because I wanted to figure out how to do that. And once I had something that was running, that was working, I discovered that I just really enjoyed working on it and it sort of progressed from there,” Bjarni says.
“Sometime around January of this year I became really frustrated and really concerned about privacy issues online. There had been rumours about the stuff that Edward Snowden revealed. These rumours have been in the tech community for a very long time. I was getting frustrated by, in my opinion, a lack of innovation in email in general and I was starting to feel like maybe I should turn this project into more than just a hobby.”
Bjarni was in a hot tub at a Reykjavík pool when he met Brennan Novak, a young American user interface designer who took an interest in Bjarni’s then hobby. “He knows how to make things beautiful and easy to understand. And that’s exactly the skillset I was lacking to build a product that would be useful to people,” Bjarni explains. In addition to Brennan, developer and activist Smári McCarthy joined the team to provide insight into online privacy and educating people on how to understand and use encryption. Helping to develop Mailpile seems a natural next step for Smári who was recently notified by Google that a United States court had ordered an extensive classified search of his Gmail account metadata. “This would never happen if his email was on his own computer in his own home, because if they want to access that they have to come knocking on his door, present him with a warrant, and talk to him,” Bjarni says.
The Mailpile team’s 100,000 USD goal will go toward the development of the software. Some of the funds will be for testing, hiring extra help, and travelling to conferences, and paying their salary so that they can focus on the project.
A new normal
The reason why Mailpile could be worth paying attention to is not just because it provides encryption, though that is a key feature; it’s because Mailpile’s aim is to create better email overall which, considering the nature of online communication, should by default include easy to use privacy options that make encrypting more normative. “With Thunderbird or Outlook, the focus was on creating a programme enabling people to read and write email, and organise it into folders, and then they added some search capabilities and maybe they’d get a third party extension to do the encryption,” Bjarni says. “It just really changes things if you do them as an afterthought. They don’t work as well. So we’re taking a very different approach in that respect.”
Mailpile differs from other webmail providers in that although it looks like a normal website (the interface is akin to familiar Gmail), it’s not. It’s software. “It’s going to be confusing to some people because they expect a website to be something that’s somewhere in the cloud or in a data centre somewhere, but actually it doesn’t need to be,” he says. Software means that Mailpile is installed on a personal computer rather than accessed remotely. “This allows us to leverage [website] technology but to do so in a way that’s still on your own machine where all of the data stays under your control.”
What initially sparked Bjarni’s interest in tinkering with email was actually building stronger search engines, so a major feature of Mailpile is a sophisticated internal search engine. “There’s no software out there that will make it easy [for people] to generate reports about their email or visualise how you’ve been communicating with people in a fancy way. Because we’re approaching this from a different angle, it will be easy to do things like that,” Bjarni says. Mailpile would allow people to make more directed searches of their email content and perhaps think differently about the way they communicate.
Along with privacy and stronger searches, Mailpile is designed to be fast and responsive, outperforming “the cloud” even on slow computers, as the project’s site states. “I do make some significant claims about the performance of Mailpile. It is really fast, and this is surprising to people because we’ve sort of been trained to believe that things that happen in big data centres far away have more computing power—that shiny data centres must be better than what we have in our laps, but it turns out that’s not really true,” Bjarni says. “And the reason that we then become faster than interacting with something like Gmail is that the computer is right in your lap. It’s closer to you.”
Other unique elements of Mailpile are that it is open source software, which means the code is public and anyone can contribute to the project. And, at the moment, Bjarni thinks that Mailpile won’t be supplying users with email addresses. Instead people will be able to use addresses they already have. “Mailpile will just download your email and will process it locally instead of it being wherever it was before,” he explains. Thus, if someone were to stick with their Gmail account and download it through Mailpile, they might not get all the security benefits, but they would be able to easily encrypt when they felt they needed to. “This may change,” he said, “but I don’t really want to provide people with email addresses, because that would make them dependent on Mailpile in a sense.”
Mailpile has received exceptional financial support and praise in a very short amount of time, but Bjarni recognises that the project needs to be approached in manageable steps. “The real challenge is when we start adding features for secure communications, including encryption and digital signatures. These are things that even skilled computer professionals have to do their homework on and study before they can get it right, he says.
“So we have a very ambitious goal of making this accessible to non-technical people. That’s something we’re going to figure out in the next few months. A big part of the project is just doing the research, doing some experiments, creating some mock-ups, having people try them, and iterating until we have something that’s actually useable.”
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