59: Making Email Private and Better for Everyone with Bron Gondwana of FastmailPublished January 5, 2021
Run time: 00:55:27
Think your email's private? Think again. Big tech email providers use your data as a way to get rich. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Fastmail CEO Bron Gondwana joins the show from the Land Down Under to chat about why “free” email isn’t free. Bron explains how email is the biggest social network in the world that isn’t ephemeral, why building digital products should align with your moral values, and how open source and open standards benefit all.
In this episode, you will learn:
- How email holds the story of your life
- How “free” email services like Gmail have a cost
- The benefits of paid services that don’t monetize user data
- The value in making tools that users don’t have to think about, so they can get in, get out, and get on with their lives
- What transparency and honesty have to do with building digital products
- Bron’s favorite tools and services focused on user privacy
- What open source and open standards are and how they’re valuable for building digital products
This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.
Recorded November 30, 2020 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski
Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at all things technical. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.
Today we are chatting with Bron Gondwana, the CEO of Fastmail, an email service built for you, not for advertisers. Fastmail allows you to take back your privacy and get a better email experience at the same time. Bron joins the show from the land down under to chat - Oh my god, yeah, that actually was a terrible Australian accent. Well, we'll run with it. Bron joins the show from Australia to chat about how free email isn't free, the value of building digital products focused on transparency and privacy, and his passion for open source and open standards. So without further ado, here is my interview with Bron Gondwana.
Bron, welcome to the show.
Bron Gondwana 1:05
Thank you. It's great to be here.
Tim Bornholdt 1:07
I am incredibly excited to have you on because I've been a Fastmail user for a number of years and a huge advocate for all the work that you guys do over there. So I'm really excited to bring you on the show and get to know a little bit more about you. And in that vein, I'd really love to hear your origin story and hear how you got to be the almighty powerful CEO of such a great company.
Bron Gondwana 1:28
Yeah, sure. Thanks, Tim. And it's a pleasure to be on this podcast. I had a look through a couple of your previous podcasts. And I'm very impressed that you do a full transcript of everything that everyone says. So if someone's listening along to this and can't understand my Australian accent, then they can go have a look and read the subtitles and check whether they think I've said something crazy, that doesn't make any sense. And they can read the notes and confirm their suspicions. So that'll be great.
Tim Bornholdt 1:57
We'll put that machine learning algorithm to test with your accent and see how well it does.
Bron Gondwana 2:05
Excellent. My origin story. Yeah. Well, I grew up in the bush in Tasmania, and I was home educated for very many years, and then moved to Melbourne and had a couple of different jobs here. And wound up, I was actually living in New Jersey, when I got this job. I was working in clinical trial data management. And I had applied for Fastmail a year beforehand and not heard back. Turned out that my notes had gone to someone who just been overwhelmed at the time and hadn't dealt with it and was embarrassed they hadn't replied and filed my resume aside. And later they called me out of the blue, just when I was about to look for a job back in Australia. We had the second kid on the way and we wanted to move back closer to family. And it was time to find a new job anyway, the clinical trial work had gone down a path that didn't really suit me.
And yeah, this job popped into my lap in 2004. So I started as sysadmin programmer, and worked right through till 2010 in a team of just four and then eventually three of us for quite a few years. In 2010 Fastmail, the company was purchased by Opera Software, based in Oslo, they're the browser manufacturers, and they were planning to build a social network that needed an email component and they bought our company to provide that email component. I moved to Oslo, worked in the corporate office there for two years. And at the end of that time, they had decided to go down a different path. They were more focused on the advertising business. And that didn't fit well with our customer base, there was various friction there.
I moved back to Australia. Opera looked at various options for what to do with the company. And they had sold a service that required a whole stack of email as part of it. And so they wound up spinning us back off as our own company. So four of us bought the company from Opera and ran it independently agai. The project at the end didn't didn't go anywhere. It almost launched and then changes in the structure of the telcos it was based on, they decided they didn't need an email service anymore. So we didn't do that. And here we are now as an independent company. And then in 2014, 15, we went through the process of acquiring pobox.com, which was another email company based in Philadelphia, and we wound up merging the two companies together. So now Fastmail is Australia and Philadelphia, and a few people remotely around the world as well.
Tim Bornholdt 4:40
I love it. So with Fastmail, you know, I know the reason why it exists but I really would love for you to share with my listeners, why does it exist? Why should somebody use Fastmail and what's kind of the impetus behind it?
Bron Gondwana 4:56
I mean, we exist because we provide sufficient value to our customers, and they're willing to pay for our service, at some level.
Tim Bornholdt 5:05
I suppose that's why any business exists. What is the value then?
Bron Gondwana 5:09
We were founded in 1999, way before I started, because there were no good email options for serious users. Email was something that your school or your ISP provided, or that you ran on a little exchange service shoved under the desk in your business. And there wasn't an online email service provided by email experts for serious business use or for serious people to use. And yeah, we continue to exist, because email's a fascinating area and it's something I've loved for very many years and still do. And the way that people use email's been evolving quite a bit, but it's also quite conservative and unchanging. It's the biggest social network in the world and the only truly open social network. So emails built on top of open standards that are implemented pretty much the same way by everybody. And of course, you go down into the weeds, and there's differences in compatibilities. But pretty much email works from anyone to anyone, you can send an email to anyone in the world, and it might wind up in a spam folder, but mostly it gets through. So email gets declared dead, pretty much on a yearly basis. Mark Zuckerberg famously, just over 10 years ago, now, I looked this up, declared that email was dead. And it certainly isn't. Even someone as powerful as Facebook has not managed to kick email out. And there's a reason for it.
I went back a few years ago, trying to find something in my Facebook Messenger chat with a friend. Not only was it impossible to search, so I wound up having to go to the mobile site and page through. And I looked back, and there was a whole giant gap where I was sure I had chatted with her. And there was nothing, nothing in the messenger history, and there's no way of telling whether it was ever there, whether my memory's right, or whether the information has just been lost. So email's your own personal immutable copy of a conversation. And that's really important, particularly in this world where reputable newspapers regularly update their headlines and the copy in the articles, and it's just different. You go and you look, and it's not how you remembered it. So having your own exact copy of what you've said is really valuable. You go back and look at your email, it's exactly the same as the day it arrived. The information hasn't changed. It hasn't disappeared underneath you. That's really important. To me, email is, I say, it's your online memory. And it's a trustworthy memory. I'm sure we'll talk a bit about trust in this podcast.
Tim Bornholdt 7:54
Maybe a little bit. I really love that you brought up the Zuckerberg quote, because I think when you look at something like email, it is this foundational thing that we just kind of take for granted now. I mean, you look at when cities are being built, and they're laying down like sewers and pipes and stuff. It's like you just kind of take that stuff for granted. And it's amazing how email, just people hate it, but it's because they have to live in it. They have to associate things like work and stressful bosses, you know, sending stuff to you. But it's still like a foundational thing that's part of your life. And like you said, it's not going to go anywhere anytime soon. We're gonna have email for a really long time, and especially if we continue to evolve these standards to comply with, you know, things that change along the way.
Bron Gondwana 8:41
Yeah, certainly something like email. I mean, that history, that's something that's stable, doesn't exist in a lot of other areas. So messaging is designed to be ephemeral, often, you don't have the long back history of it. It disappears. Email's more about something that you get a copy, and you keep it forever. So I guess it's more like a filing cabinet in some ways. You place your paperwork in your filing cabinet and it sits there for years, and you may rarely look at it, but it's there for you to look up if you need. So it's maybe a bit more serious than a lot of other things.
Tim Bornholdt 9:21
Right. Because I think when you're talking about Facebook Messenger, I think of that as just a quick one off, I'm gonna send something to you. And we use Slack a ton with our business. And there's something about Slack that we also just treat it as ephemeral because after 10,000 messages go by, you know, we don't pay for the paid version, so it's like those messages just disappear as well. So for us, email is the only medium that we can all send stuff to and we all make sure that it's in our inboxes, so at the very least if we go back to Slack and nothing existed from, you know, eight months ago, we can at least go back to our email and pull that up.
Bron Gondwana 10:00
Yeah, we've been using Slack ourselves for a few years. And we do pay for the history, which has its pros and cons, because it means it's getting slower and slower. Slack a year ago was quite snappy. But Slack now is quite slow and annoying. And also, just scrolling back a few days is already getting difficult.
Tim Bornholdt 10:19
Yeah, I don't envy those engineers that at Slack. I'm sure they have a lot of data to have to pour through.
Bron Gondwana 10:26
Yeah, it is a complex problem. And so we use sSack for a ephemoral stuff and we say, if you want it to be remembered, send it to topicbox, which is our mailing list system, one of our products that we sell to people. So where we say email is your electronic memory, topicbox is the electronic memory for your team. And particularly, we've found even in the couple of years we've been using it that as we onboard new people, it's really valuable to say, just go to topicbox and look through the history for a project to see what was discussed there. So rather than people having to forward them the important emails, they can go find them themselves. And there's that shared history.
Tim Bornholdt 11:09
Nice. Well, it's funny you mentioned having a product that people pay for, because I think that's something on the internet, you know, we've very much been conditioned over the years to just think that everything is free, and we don't need to worry about paying for things. Which then of course, that means that we're giving our private data to people for free. So, you know, how do you empower people to think about this differently and kind of think back to what you might call the good old days where you would, you know, you would pay somebody for a service, and they would provide it for you. And it's not the other way around, where you're just giving up data and they're selling it, you don't know what they're doing with it, but you're getting something for free?
Bron Gondwana 11:51
It's pretty simple, honest concept, isn't it, paying money in exchange for service provided? Where did that go? But I mean, a lot of it's education. And thankfully, that's happening in the world already. It's not something we can do all by ourselves. But things like the Social Dilemma movie has really shown people how much they're trading in exchange for these shiny, free things. And yeah, email in particular, I think a lot of people realize that email tracks pretty much everything you do online. There's newsletters, there's receipts, there's itineraries. And it's also where login recovery goes for pretty much any other site. If you forget your password, what do you do? You click and you get sent an email with a link that lets you in so not only is security a really big concern for email, because if someone gets control of your email, they can use that to leverage control of pretty much everything else. But also, the privacy is really important, someone who can read through all your email can understand a lot about your life. And from that they can understand how to control you. And people are seeing this a lot that it's about controlling what you think and controlling how you behave. And as you've seen in America recently controlling how you vote. It all comes down to if people can understand everything about you and can spy on your every move, then there's a lot can be done there.
Tim Bornholdt 13:20
And I don't think people understand how, over the last, you know, 10 years that I've been doing software development, it's gotten so easy to fire up any kind of tool to comb through all that data and make, you know, good sense of it. I know, for example, Amazon recently stopped putting, like when they would send you a receipt and say, Here's, you know, thank you for your order, here's what you ordered. You know, they used to have like every single item that you would order. And they've stopped doing that. Because recently, it's kind of come out that people that are using free surfaces, they were taking those emails and being able to comb through and be like, Oh, okay, they purchased such and such, they purchased dog food or this brand of dog food. So we know that they own a dog and they purchased this. And it's like you can really quickly if you have access to this data, assemble a very complex and intricate profile. And it's something like with email that like you said, it's used for so many things like just receipts or doctor's follow up appointment information and itineraries and all of that stuff. So yeah, it's really scary when you have a free service that you don't know what they're doing with that data. And as opposed to something like you're offering where I assume you're not harvesting any of that data and giving it up to the highest bidder.
Bron Gondwana 14:40
No, we're not. Obviously we do index it all for you. So something we released quite recently was attachment search. So you can now search the text inside attachments as much as possible. So we'll send them out to a service that we run internally that then extracts the text from as many PDFs and documents and whatever, and injects that into our search engine, but we have one such database per account. And so it's just your own personal search database that all this goes into. And it's used to allow you to find your email more quickly. And so, yeah, while we position ourselves as a privacy company, and people are becoming aware of privacy, we're really aware that we have to provide a usable service. It has to be not just basically usable, but pleasant, because people accept a small amount of discomfort in exchange for their privacy, but they really don't accept much discomfort before they'll go, I don't notice anyway. And so we have to meet people where they are and provide them with a really good experience, along with that privacy, so that they feel comfortable and so that they get their lives done. Everyone's busy, everyone's trying to do other things. Email is an important utility. But you don't want to be spending all your day thinking about it and all your day processing it. So what we do with your data is try and make it as easy as possible for you to do what you want with it. And we build a toolkit to allow you to build the workflow you want on top of it.
Tim Bornholdt 16:14
This might seem like a silly follow up question on that. But, you know, I would imagine that building some kind of indexing engine like that, you know, for if I was Google, and I was extracting all that, building that, it would make a lot of sense, because I'm pulling down all that information, and I can then do whatever machine learning blah, blah, blah, to get all the information I would want out of it. But from Fastmail's standpoint, is it worth all the effort for doing that? Like, is it just the warm, fuzzy feelings? Or why do you go through all that effort to make something that is actually super useful, but probably technically relatively challenging?
Bron Gondwana 16:53
Just because I wanted to be able to find the link to this podcast quickly in my email, without having to scroll back through things. That's the thing. You want to be able to respond within just a couple of seconds to a query so that people can find their email. And it is amazing what people's expectations of email are compared to just about anything else. I have gigabytes of email, we have people with hundreds of gigabytes of email, millions of messages in their mail pool, and they want to be able to search it in a couple of seconds and have their email show up. And at some extent, that's completely unreasonable compared to everything people have had before. Imagine comparing that to a filing cabinet where you had to scroll through it. But on the other hand, the equipment exists to do it, the technology exists to do it, it's great to be able to do it, why not? Why not provide it?
So we currently, this is maybe going a little bit onto the too geeky and technical side of things, but we're currently evaluating NVMe drives for everything at the moment, email search. The kind of older emails and older search indexes are stored on what we call spinning rust, hard disks with spinning bits of metal, which are higher volume and cheaper. But the new technologies are getting to the point where we can have even faster drives. And one of the first blog posts we wrote in our Advent series that we did for a few years, one blog post every day of the 24 days of December, which was kind of mad. And we got the material out of those few years and then ran out of stuff, new stuff to put there so decided that it wasn't as good use of our time as building new features for people instead. So we've stopped doing that. But for a few years, we wrote 24 blog posts every December. And one of the first ones was about how we built a search architecture with multiple layers. So it indexes to memory to start off with and then it compresses it down to SSD and then compress it to the slow drives. And we built all this technical levels based on the price points of the technology that was available 10-15 years ago. And these days, you can get faster drives for cheap enough that we're going to be putting them in and certainly evaluating them for search to be able to make the search even faster. And it's all down to making it easier for people to do useful things with their email and spend less time waiting for the server to reply.
Basically, the faster people can process their email and get on with the important parts of their lives, the better. And something's really valuable about the fact that we're a paid service. We don't want people's eyeballs spending hours on our site. Most sites on the internet are trying to keep your eyeball on the site and keep you there so they can show you more advertisements. In our case, we want you to spend a short time as possible on our site because it's using our resources. If you can get in, process your email in a couple of minutes and nip off and do something else with your data, it's great for us. And it's great for you. And we think that's worth paying for.
Tim Bornholdt 20:11
I think that's beautifully said too, because I think about that a lot when we're building software. We don't have a whole lot of clients whose revenue model is advertising or anything where it does require people to be on the platform as much as possible, you know. We're not hiring psychologists to try to manipulate people into staying on, right? Like, we want to build solutions, where it's like, get in and get out and just have this be a tool. You know, it's not like, whoever manufactures hammers is trying to think of how can I get you to hold on to this hammer for 24 hours a day? It's like, I just want you to use the hammer to pound the nail and put it away and have it be a really good experience of swinging the hammer, you know?
Bron Gondwana 20:52
Yeah. Yeah, making a useful tool that lets you get the actual job you want done. People don't generally buy hammers because they enjoy hammering. They buy hammers because they want to fix something to something else with a sharp piece of metal. Or you know, smash things.
Tim Bornholdt 21:10
Yeah, or destroy a bunch of things. That works too.
Bron Gondwana 21:13
Or crack open walnuts.
Tim Bornholdt 21:15
Nice. I guess tis the season. Whenever we set up people, we have clients that we sometimes help get their entire tech stack set up, which you know how it is being the guy that has to set up printers. It's like, I don't want to do that. But you know, sometimes you just kind of do some favors for people. But whenever we have clients that want us to help them set up like email and website, I always just sign them up for Fastmail without them even knowing what I'm doing. But then, after, you know, two months of using it, they're like, you know, why aren't we using G Suite? Or why aren't we using Outlook? Or something like that. And I have to tell them, you know, this is privacy and all that, and I try to rattle this off. But I think I come at it from a combative standpoint, as opposed to probably a more friendly marketing standpoint, which is, you know, why you're on the show. So help me, you know, convince people, how do you go about convincing people that the benefits of private email outweigh some of the free options out there, like Hotmail or Gmail or any of the other free things that are out there?
Bron Gondwana 22:19
Yeah, it's unfortunate that the reaction isn't, Oh, great. I've got the good stuff. Obviously, that's we'd prefer their reaction to be. Do you have a sense of what they're concerned about with Fastmail?
Tim Bornholdt 22:30
I think it's just not what they're used to, you know, like that they're used to email being free, I think more than anything. They see it as a line item expense that they could turn down to zero if they go to someplace else.
Bron Gondwana 22:47
Yeah, I mean, that is the big concern for us is that we are competing against products with different business models that come across as being free for the customer, and showing them that the hidden cons are there. And yeah, so it's like general anxiety, it's something new, familiarity, different product, all those kinds of things are issues. Does that feedback change after they've been using Fastmail for a while?
Tim Bornholdt 23:16
I don't think so. Because I think for the most part, people forget quickly, you know. I don't forget what the trade offs are of going from paid to free. And I guess now that I think about it, it's kind of a 50/50 split, because I've only done it for a handful of clients. And half of them stuck with Fastmail and half of them have migrated to other solutions, which yeah, some of them are, you know, deep into the Microsoft stack, for example. So they were on Office 365. And it's like, well, we should just move everything in here, so it's all under one roof. And it's like, I get that. And they're paying for it still, so I think it's a little bit different. But yeah, I think it's maybe people do get used to it after a while, but it's like a plumbing thing, again, where it should just be, you just go here, this is your email and you just deal with it. But you know, some people get offended by having to pay for things. And it's curious to hear from your standpoint of someone who is offering a premium service. And there are many ways in which it is superior. But you know, to articulate those in the heat of the moment, for me, it's like, you kind of have to scratch your head and think for a few seconds to come back and say like, Oh yeah, they're not selling all your information and trying to harvest information or they're not trying to do all these other things that you get when you have a free service as opposed to something that you're paying for. I'm just curious your thoughts, if you ever come across things like that, or if it is kind of those aren't really who you're trying to go after as a customer base.
Bron Gondwana 24:53
It's interesting, isn't it, the challenge of explaining that and it can't be just that. It can't just be its privacy. And you have to give up all of this in order to get privacy because people won't. And I certainly get that point about integrations that if you're using, otherwise, the fully Google suite or the fully Microsoft suite, and you've got this one thing that's different, it can be very tempting to go for the integrated solution. And I understand that. Yeah, it has to also be good. And one thing I've really noticed, when I see other people use their email, how slow and annoying it is. When I pull up my Fastmail, and I search for something, it's right there straightaway. Google is close to that, because they have amazing search infrastructure, obviously. Everything else, it's much harder to find old emails, it's much harder to process it in their system. So I think that's certainly for the more power user. For the person who really cares about their email, they see the advantage of the features in Fastmail and the speed. For somebody who email's just to utility at the side it is a harder sell, to say it's worth paying for this.
I think one thing, a term, is privacy insurance. That's kind of a tricky thing to describe. But you're basically paying for insurance here against the privacy attacks that happen when the incentives aren't aligned. And just the thing that I very much talk about when explaining why Fastmail is worth paying for is that our incentives are aligned with your incentives. We want you to succeed. We want to help you succeed and provide an email solution that continues to help you succeed. Because that means you'll keep paying us. We have no incentive to sell you out. Because that's not the business model that we have. And with the free, there's always incentive to find some new way to sell, to monetize your data, because that's the business model that they're based on. So yeah, it comes down to incentives and alignment.
Tim Bornholdt 27:04
Yeah, I love that. And I say that all the time. Like, whenever somebody comes to me with an app idea, and it's, you know, we want it to be free with advertisements. It's like, Okay, well, what are you offering? What service are you offering? Because those incentives don't align very well in certain applications. You know, if you're playing a game where you want to power up with coins or whatever, then maybe ads are a good play for you. But if you're talking about a tool that you use with your business every day, you should probably pay for that. Says the guy who doesn't pay for his Slack.
Bron Gondwana 27:40
Well, you want to remain in business, don't you? We've been in business for over 20 years now Fastmail, and we're still pushing the forefront of email technology and developing and contributing to the latest standards, which I'm sure we'll get to. But that means that you know, you're going to be getting the latest and greatest, but also people who know what they're doing. And that makes a big difference. But yeah, it is hard to justify that upfront, which is why I think the insurance metaphor has some value there. Because that's something you pay for and hope you never need to use.
Tim Bornholdt 28:19
Yep, no, I love that. I'm gonna take that. For some of our listeners who are working on digital products, being someone who's very steeped in transparency and privacy, what's some advice that you might have for them, you know, with why it's valuable to be a good internet citizen and keep transparency and privacy in mind? And the alignment of incentives was one, you know, such thing to keep in mind. But are there any other things that you think about when you're talking about building something, a product that, you know, isn't hostile towards users, and has that kind of being a good internet citizen in mind?
Bron Gondwana 29:00
This is gonna sound really trite, but you'll have to live with yourself for the rest of your life. So build something you can be proud of, and you won't feel slimy for having been involved with. I think that's really important to be able to look back on your life and be proud of what you did and that you built value. And I mean, the standard business advice, a good product or service will add enough value to your customer's life that you both come out ahead. After they've paid for it, you get the money, they get something that has added enough value to their life to compensate them for that money. That's great. It's not enough. You still have to find market fit, show people that your thing will improve their life and build a community in a market and it's hard, right? Building a new business is always hard. And I don't have specific advice because everyone's situation is quite different. But yeah, the general advice is solve a problem in an area where you have unique knowledge and experience that gives you an edge where you understand the problem domain, and you understand the pain points that you can solve for somebody by them becoming a customer, that's how you build a digital product that succeeds. But yeah, if you are going to be unhappy, if it doesn't align with your values, that is going to hurt you in the long term. You might get some short term success, but you won't be proud of yourself.
Tim Bornholdt 30:24
Yeah, I mean, even if you are, you know, mega successful and you're retired on a beach, you know, by the time you're 30, you kind of see tech moguls somewhat making amends these days just for some of the past transgressions of like all the advertising, data mining, all that kind of stuff. And yeah, you're right. It's kind of like an Oppenheimer project, sort of, in some ways. If you're building something that, you know, can be seen as good in one way by you know, you did your job by finding product market fit, building value for a certain number of shareholders as opposed to something that's building value for lots of people. And like you said, the incentives are aligned instead of it being so perversely one way versus the other, where you're not even thinking about the users if you're kind of trying to find ways to harvest data or do anything like that.
Bron Gondwana 31:21
Yeah, I feel like we're taking a big dump on advertising in this discussion. Advertising is necessary. It's a matter of how slimey and how obnoxious you get about it, obviously, right. And that is a tricky problem. Back when we started, when I started at Fastmail, we still had free accounts and those free accounts had simple text advertisements when you logged into the interface that showed a text advertisement at the top of the screen. We bought that from a broker who was, you know how hamburgers can have parts from 1000 cows mixed into one burger? This kind of had texts from 1000 different vendors mixed into one feed. And despite it being just plain text, and being from a fairly reputable provider, the kind of slimy stuff that found its way into there was, we were not happy with it. And that's a large part of why we shifted away from providing anything free at all other than that initial free trial for a month is that that business model encourages lowest denominator. And it slides down to the slimey things that mislead people and advertising where it's describing what's available, and showing people how it can add value as compared to trying to manipulate people. And as you said earlier with psychologists whose entire goal is to work out how to hack the brain of people and sell them something they don't want or need, that's where it gets messy. Anyway, we're getting into a whole deep area that I don't think we can solve on this call.
Tim Bornholdt 33:05
Oh, totally. Yeah, and I agree with you. I'm glad you said that. Because obviously, you know, I mean, this podcast is an advertisement for basically both of our businesses. I mean, but you know, people are opting into listening to me chat about all the great apps we build and you talking about the great email service that you provide. I think that's fine. But it's like the advertisements where it's basically somebody walking around the internet at every site you go to saying, Hey, remember that thing I just showed you? Hey, what are you looking at on this site? Let me write that down so I can make a note of it for later. What do you got going on over here? It's just, like you said, the slimier part of the internet, there's this like, pervasive entitlement to that information now, and that's what really bothers me is that like, nobody has ever been like, Oh, yeah, I hope somebody can just follow me around and track everything I do so that later they can offer me a deal on a car or something like that. It's like, I'd rather, if I'm looking for a car, I'll look on car websites, and then there's a good place for advertisements, but like you said, neither here nor there.
Bron Gondwana 34:14
It's so bad. It's like that yo dawg meme. Yo, dawg. I saw you're interested in purchasing washing machines. Here's some other washing machines you might be - Oh you bought a washing machine. I'm just going to show you washing machines for the next three months because you definitely need two of those. It's ridiculous.
Tim Bornholdt 34:35
Yeah, yeah it's the unintelligent, I mean it's like if they're gonna be so in your face about it, at least they can be intelligent about what they're going to offer you. But yeah, it's always like on Amazon, you go back to looking at when you buy something, it'll always be like, hey, you bought this dresser. Do you need another dresser? Remember that dresser you bought two years ago? Do you need another one? It's like no, I have a dresser and it was a good dresser and I'm good now.
Bron Gondwana 35:01
Obviously, their mistake is selling me something that's good, because otherwise you'd need another one all the time.
Tim Bornholdt 35:06
Well exactly, yeah, they gotta buy the ones with faulty hinges.
Bron Gondwana 35:10
Anyway, I think the point we're getting to here is buy email services and apps from us excellent people.
Tim Bornholdt 35:15
Yes. Thank you.
Bron Gondwana 35:16
That's the point of this podcast.
Tim Bornholdt 35:19
So speaking of other services and tools and things that you use, I mean besides your own service, do you have any other ones that you go to when you're thinking about, whenever I think about good quality companies that are, you know, focusing on user privacy and having that as one of the tenants that they think about as they're, you know, making decisions, are other other companies that you hold in high regard as well?
Bron Gondwana 35:43
Certainly Mozilla, as an organization, great fan of the work they've been doing in the open space. They are a bit on the web focused side of things. So they have been following the Thunderbird project. And they've gone through some interesting times of working out where they fit into Mozilla's open world. But yeah, I like Mozilla. I run Firefox as my primary browser, even did when I was at Opera, which was a bit of fun printing on Linux, and I've been running Linux on my desktop since the year 2000, which was going to be the year of the Linux desktop. There's been some bad years and some even worse years for the Linux desktop, but it works. It works. Even this call, I'm still in Linux, and everything has not crashed yet. So that's great. Yeah, I mean, as much as I think they're the wrong choice for most people, I had a friend who lost all her email when she forgot her password, it's good to have people like protonmail staking out the extreme end of the email lens. And yeah, there's certainly some people who need that level of extreme focus on secrecy at the expense of all the other usability stuff that we have, that's great. And then, another thing that I use is 1password. And I think any password manager is a really important thing, so that you're not reusing the same password everywhere. And you don't have to memorize a million things. So I use 1password in conjunction with UB keys. I have a UB key on my key ring and another one in my backpack. And so for a lot of sites, I use that for my two factor, which is significantly more secure than just about anything else. You see a lot of the big companies now require their stuff to have a secure key that has the encryption built into the physical key. So it's not something that can be hacked over the internet and stolen. So I use that or Google Authenticator, which is the simplest six digit, one time password, that again, still is a something I have, that's not something I remember. So it gives me that time based login protection. Big fan of DuckDuckGo and what they do, in terms of showing that you don't have to build a giant profile of people to provide useful search, sometimes just searching for the term rather than searching in your own little ecosystem of the profile they've built view of you is quite useful. And you're not stuck in the echo chamber the whole time. And in terms of proliferation, I have tons of secure messaging apps on my phone, pretty much every time I chat to someone different, they use a different app. So I'm hoping that that space standardizes at some point, but it's good to see experimentation. The difficulty, of course, is it's hard to prove that something's private. So there's tons of products that make very dubious claims about how good and private they actually are. And of course, everything else in my phone's that litany of privacy horrors. I use Facebook, and I use it really heavily because a lot of my real world's there. I sing in choir, and the choir events are all organized through Facebook. My hobby is teaching gym classes, teach body pump and body step classes. And all that's organized by Facebook groups. So if someone's unable to do their classes, looking for someone to cover it, that's almost always organized through Facebook. So there's nothing else that has that usability and network effect at the moment. So I'm there.
Tim Bornholdt 39:18
And you kind of have to be. I mean I think it's just like you were joking about 2000 was the year of the Linux on the desktop, you know, that joke's been trotted out every single year since then. And I think it's something about being realistic about expectations, because there's a reason why Facebook and Amazon and Apple and Google are on top. They've been able to kind of catapult their way in there. And that has been where everybody has gone. So those network effects are super powerful and you have to be there. But if you're kind of building your own thing, you don't have to compete at that level. You can build a nice business for yourself, as well as providing good value while doing it, like you said, with a conscience that allows you to sleep at night and allow you to sleep going forward in the future.
Bron Gondwana 40:09
Yeah, the thing with Facebook is that they are providing a lot of value there, they are providing those connections. And because it's a locked in system, nobody else can compete there. I would pay for the service I have on Facebook rather than giving up my privacy, but there's no choice. It's one or the other there. And so that's what I love about email and the fact that it is an open standard and that everything interoperates with other systems as you can choose. You can choose to pay for service, or you can choose to pay with your privacy. And the two sets of people can speak to each other. And it just works. So if I could pay somebody who provided me the access to those groups, to the choir events, to the gym classes, to the things that are happening in the real world around me and lead me into that ecosystem, I'd do that instead. But I don't have that choice there. And in email, I do have that choice. So one of the things I like about email.
Tim Bornholdt 41:12
Well, and yeah, I mean, I'm glad you mentioned open standards, because that was the last thing I wanted to cover here today actually was open standards and open source. I know you've been living in that world for most of your professional career. And I think given that, again, most of our listeners here are not very technical, I don't think a lot of people appreciate how much of whatever apps are being built are being built with open source. And so I'm curious to hear if you could give a maybe a brief explanation of what open source is, and why is that actually valuable when you're building digital products?
Bron Gondwana 41:49
Sure, I'll try to. So open source is a whole set of different concepts. And there's many different types of open source and different rules about how it can be used. So for a non technical audience, the key point is that the code that's used to build that software is available in its source code form, which is the form that the programmer modifies the software in. And so by having that source code available, you can examine it, you can understand how it works. And you can generally modify it and then build a new copy of the software with changes in it. And many forms of open source to distribute those modified works either however you like or there might be some constraints that you have to distribute your source code with it as well. So you have to provide people with the same level of access and abilities modified that you were granted when you got that code.
And so yeah, analogies are never quite perfect. And car analogies are doubly not perfect. But here's the car analogy. Open source is a car that comes with the mechanics manual, so you can tinker with it yourself. Or you can take it to any other mechanic and have them work on it. And if someone's an expert with that model, obviously they'll do faster work, but anyone can learn, can understand how the car works and do work on it. The extreme end of closed sources, things like you can buy tractors now that has the hood locked shut with a custom key and only the manufacturer, or only services that are approved by that manufacturer can unlock it. And often, only official spare parts can be fitted and they have security interlocks that don't allow someone to manufacture a part or replacement part. You have to buy the replacement part only from the vendor, which is bad enough from an anti competitive side of things. But it's even worse when the vendor says, I'm not supporting this tractor anymore, you know, $100,000 tractor that's sitting in your field, you just have to buy a new tractor because we don't provide spare parts anymore. It's out of service. So that's open source, is the ability to see how it works, to modify it, and to distribute your modifications.
Open standards is a bit different. But it's often seen together with open source because that same spirit of openness and working together is there. So open standards are like a common language that anybody can learn. So in the email case, if you have 10 different email providers and 10 different email programs, and they all speak exactly the same open standard language, then each email program only needs to implement it once. But if each email service has its own protocol that it speaks in, to be able to talk to those different services, every single one of those programs needs to speak 10 different languages. So it's something you can think of in human languages, that if everyone you talk to speaks a different language, then you have to learn a ton of languages. Whereas if you have that standard language or power plugs is an exciting thing in open standards that you can look at, certainly anyone who travels needs to buy a couple of adapters so they can plug into the PowerPoints in different countries. But within a country, it's standard, you can plug your device into any PowerPoint that will work the same way. And so standards constrain things, but they also allow things to work together. And open standards, yeah, are standards anyone can read and learn from.
Tim Bornholdt 45:27
This is for the listeners, does email have like one email standard, or are there multiples that you have to work with, especially in your role at Fastmail?
Bron Gondwana 45:40
There's never one standard for anything. Certainly, in terms of email mime, which is the structure of emails themselves, is quite standard. There's very little that competes directly with mine. But within mime, mime is just a container that different parts are in. So an email might contain a plain text version of the text, and then an HTML version of the text with all the bolds and fonts and nice stuff. And then maybe some images that appear in that as well, and some attachments. And they're all separate components within that mime structure. So it's a container, like a zip file, it contains multiple bits. And there's some ways to show how they are shown. And mostly that just works. Then the HTML may or may not display cleanly depending what system you're in, and the email might look weird. So there's bits that are standard and bits that behave differently on different systems. But that's all fairly standard.
In terms of my area, I work at the IETF, the Open Internet Standards Body. And in three working groups, I'm a co chair of two email groups and one calendar group. And those groups are very much around the standards for talking email between your device so your phone or your computer, and a program running on there and then the server. So it's the client server part. And there are two open standards that most systems implement there, which are pop three, the old one, and I'm at four, which is the current one. And then there's a new one called gem app, which came out just a year or so ago, and it's something Fastmail's been working on since 2014. We built our own protocol. And then we looked at the world said everyone's building their own protocol for client server email, because IMAP just doesn't quite cut it in the current world. And so we started standardizing what we'd done. It's been pretty much rewritten a couple of times in that process; we made it more regular, and something that wasn't just custom named properties for exactly what we're doing, but generic terms that would be useful to other people. And then we took it to IETF. And it got pretty much rewritten again there. I mean, basically, we went and we talked to a bunch of other email experts who said, That's great. How about this other case? Yeah, good point. So we made it even more regular, and more usable. So it came out even better from that. And there's a lot of work now happening to make geomap extend, not from just email to also calendars, to contacts, notes, files, all those other things that you need for a full email service or full communication service, possibly even real time chat will be built on top of jam app. And jam app, again, is going to be a container that works with you modern standards. It's HTTP, it's JSON. It has push built in right from the start. So you get updates immediately when something happens rather than having to pull the server. And on top of that you can build much nicer structures for real time notifications and for real time, kind of being informed that something's happened on the server. And that's really useful.
Tim Bornholdt 48:57
Do most people have to worry about open standards and open source when they're working on software? Or is that more of like, me and you have to worry about that?
Bron Gondwana 49:07
Some. It matters whether something's open in terms of it not going away quite so quickly, as things still go away. Just because you have something in an open standard doesn't necessarily mean that the server is going to keep implementing that same standard. I think one of the biggest things that happened in that area is x MPP, which was a jabber chat. Many years ago, Facebook Messenger, gateway to jabber, Google's chat stuff, gateway to jabber, it was going to be the open standard and then they decided to turn that gateway off and become more closed. So we went from something where you could theoretically federate chat to two more closed systems, and I can understand why. A couple of reasons. One is that it was harder to innovate. You couldn't add things that weren't compatible with the gateway and so it slowed everything down. And the other problem was spam. If you everything's open and federated, then you're receiving messages from sites that are maybe not vetting their customers as well as you are. And you get people who aren't the people they claim to be sending messages that aren't what they claim to be. And that's always a problem. The more open things are, the easier it is for that bad signal, the noise to sneak in.
Yeah, one point I want to say about open standards and also open data formats is that they mean you can keep interacting with your data, even if the original software vendor of those tools goes away. So it's the difference between being completely unable to use it or having to reverse engineer it, and being able to understand it and keep using it. And there are emails from 30 years ago that still work with current tools. And that's amazing. The short term thinking of a lot of the technology stack these days is a real problem.
Tim Bornholdt 51:04
And that's really why I like, whenever we build software, I try to use as many open standards and tools as I possibly can. That's one thing I wanted to convey to the listeners here is, the more that you can fit into what is currently going on. And again, like you said, innovation is a real thing. And there might be something that's why you made up jmap is imap wasn't doing everything you needed it to do. So you needed to work out a new standard. And I think that's what's one of the more beautiful things about the internet is we spent the first half of this episode really dogging on the the bad parts of the internet, of people being able to systemically leech all this information off people. But there are good parts of the internet as well. And you kind of have to take the whole system as a whole. But I think if you're working on software, that's one thing to to keep in mind is how can you contribute back to making sure that you're adhering to global standards that are set by bodies, like the ones that you chair on. I think that's something to really keep in mind as you're building out your own custom software.
Bron Gondwana 52:09
Yeah, I guess the selling point of open source, and the idea behind it is that you get value from what you contribute to the world as well, because other people will contribute things back. And so the building blocks that you're building on top of will improve over time, because other people are contributing to it. And that's the dream that you're adding value and other people are also adding value and you're both getting that value, because software is infinitely copyable. The cost of creating a new copy of it is so low, that all the cost goes into building and improving it. And certainly that point about something being archival quality, email is something that hangs around for a long time and is still usable. Can you imagine your Slack archive in 30 years? Are you ever gonna refer to that? No. It's not designed to be something that stays around, that retains its value.
Tim Bornholdt 53:08
That's beautifully said. I really like that. Bron, I really appreciate you taking some time here to talk with me today. Is there anything you want to leave our listeners with or any any parting words of advise, or one good plug? Anything like that?
Bron Gondwana 53:23
I think we've already done all of that in here. Buy Tim's awesome apps and buy my awesome email, and you won't be disappointed or you might be a little bit along the way. But overall, you will get lots of value. That was real smooth, wasn't it? I'll have to prepare for next time, have the perfect plug that will convince people that they should totally buy not only an email service that's great for them, but also of course topicbox which will allow them to run their business on email that gives some memory for the new people when they come along and doesn't forget what the people who left knew.
Tim Bornholdt 54:02
I think that's why we're the nerds that just run the companies and that's why we have marketing people that are way smarter than us that can come up with these things. So you and I don't have to think of it on the fly.
Bron Gondwana 54:13
I'll send my marketing people next time. No, it's been great chatting with you. This has been a really nice chat.
Tim Bornholdt 54:18
Thank you. Yeah, I really appreciate you taking the time to do it today because yeah, I had a lot of fun as well.
A big thanks to Bron for joining me on the podcast today. You can learn more about Fastmail by visiting fastmail.com.
Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter and the show is @CV_podcast. Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the energetic Jordan Daoust.
If you have a minute quick before you leave, we would really love it if you left us a review on the Apple Podcast app. It shouldn't take much at all and it really does help new people find our show, just head to constantvariables.co/review, and we'll link you right there. This episode was brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group. If you're looking for a technical team who can help make sense of mobile software development, give us a shout at jmg.mn.