The mission of the Mozilla Foundation is to preserve choice and innovation on the Internet. Open standards and protocols are a big part of that, and the main focus of our work on that area is with Firefox, and things like the WHAT-WG. However, I also think we need to be aware of current attempts to make email closed and proprietary.
What am I talking about, I hear you ask? No-one’s resurrected the idea of a spam-free email walled garden recently. Companies who tout their own secure mail protocols come and go and no-one notes their passing. The volume of legitimate email sent continues to grow. What’s the worry?
I’m talking about the messaging systems built into sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. On several occasions recently, friends have chosen to get back in touch with me via one of these rather than by email. Another friend recently finished a conversation with a third party by saying “Facebook me”; when I asked her why she didn’t just use email, she said “Oh, Facebook is so much easier”.
And she’s right. There’s no spam, no risk of viruses or phishing, and you have a ready-made address book that you don’t have to maintain. You can even do common mass email types like “Everyone, come to this event” using a much richer interface. Or other people can see what you say if you “write on their wall”. In that light, the facts that the compose interface sucks even more than normal webmail, and that you don’t have export access to a store of your own messages, don’t seem quite so important.
But this is, nevertheless, a bad trend. It would be terrible if email were to descend into something like the multiple incompatible domains that afflict instant messaging – the heroic efforts of gateway providers and multi-protocol clients notwithstanding. Will we one day need accounts on every social website in order to stay in touch? Will someone need to write a Facebook/MySpace mail gateway?
What can be done? For these sites, keeping control of the communication is a win, due to increased page views and application lock-in. (This is one reason why they might be reluctant to support hCard, because it allows people to more easily take communication to another medium.) Have you noticed that email addresses on Facebook aren’t hyperlinked as “mailto”s? I wonder why that is? So we shouldn’t look for help from there.
Making real email easier to use is a first step. The fact that Thunderbird 2 has built-in support for accessing Gmail accounts is a good start; this should be extended to other email providers. Thunderbird could do with a Firefox-like UI simplification – several steps have been made in that area with QuickSearch and starring items. We need to improve search speed and quality to make single-folder operation more workable. There are some good points here too. And we need to solve the spam problem, although I’m not visionary enough to know how.