The Proprietarisation of Email

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.

14 thoughts on “The Proprietarisation of Email

  1. Will Firefox 3 finally be able to use webmail for mailto: links? It’s hard for any messaging system to be *more* difficult than “right-click, select “copy email address”, switch to gmail tab, hit compose, focus the address bar, right-click, select paste”.

    More people seem to have webmail accounts than traditional email accounts these days. And these are real, standard, non-proprietary email, regardless of the fact that google and microsoft and yahoo do other proprietary things.

    When you click on an RSS feed you have the option to add it to any one of those services. Why is a mailto: link different? The only answer I can come up with is “because mailto: has been around for longer and adding new stuff is easier than fixing the old stuff”.

  2. Mailto’s are so irritating, they always fire up Outlook on Windows (and, because I don’t use Outlook, I always need to close that app). One should give the user more options, some choice! Oh well…

  3. BTW, such social network “personal message” services can actually fall for spam easily once they get just big enough. On the internet community system I wrote, it’s been happening a few times that people just send messages of the same content to a big number of users. Of course, you can try to prevent that in the system – but that’s not different than email spam filters, actually.

    And to some part, this is just like web forums and USENET – many people prefer those forums nowadays, even though usenet would be a much more open system.

  4. Will we one day need accounts on every social website in order to stay in touch?

    Huh, I wrote about having to join all those social networking sites just to “write on friends’ walls”. One step is for social networking sites to trust OpenID so I don’t have to register for each. Another step is for their “wall” to aggregate related posts made elsewhere — I write on Facebook about Gerv’s post, and his social networking site pulls in all responses à la Trackback.

    But allowing an external ID to send incoming private e-mail? The social networking site would have to really really trust the ID. I’m willing to pay for an authoritative ID if all sites trust it. (When I bought Netscape Navigator Gold 3.0, I bought a Verisign class 3 identity; I never had occasion to use it.) But it seems there’s too much money at stake to anoint a winner.

    For these sites, keeping control of the communication is a win, due to increased page views and application lock-in.

    Exactly, so it’s hard to imagine their motivation to provide enough of a standard API so users can send, receive, and manage their mail and contacts externally in e.g. Thunderbird. It would be great if Mozilla projects could work around their disinterest and make it happen anyway!

  5. The whole point of social networking sites is lockin. There’s no point at all in appealing to those running those networks because each is looking to expand until it emcompasses all the features of its competitors.

    The only alternative is hacking openID etc. into an open, distributed social presence system, which would hopefully eventually displace the existing walled gardens. I thought this was what Red Hat’s idea was with this social networking app thing they’re doing just now.

    – Chris

  6. I’ve been using firefox since it was pheonix/firebird, I donwloaded thunderbird the other day to see how it goes.

    Everything is ok, but how do I add a ‘remove junk mail’ to the toolbar? Why isn’t it there by default? The only reason I downloaded it was because it is supposed to have amazing spam stuff.

    Apparently if you have a hotmail account, you never see any spam. I use thunderbird and I do see spam, and then it is hard to remove it!?!! How the hell do I persuade people that it is better than MS Hotmail?

    Also, in Firefox, why is the ‘New Tab’ button not on the toolbar by default? This has to be the most moronic UI gaff in history.

    Everyone I know who uses firefox complains that IE has tabbed browsing, but firefox doesn’t. Then I show them how to add the button and they just look at me like, Why the hell do I have to do that?

    Also, if you right click on some parts of the toolbar you get a menu that says ‘Open all in tabs’ and other times you get the ‘customize toolbar’ menu. *I* know it is contextual, but other people see a uniform grey bar, which sometimes lets you customise it, and sometimes it doesn’t.

    It’s like, how many people actually use the ‘reload page’ button? Not many. Not very often. How many people open new tabs? Everyone. All the time.

    It’s crazy.

    But everyone I know who uses firefox loves the plugins. See? Hows that for ‘average’ user? They have the ‘page rank’ and ‘alexa’ plugins, ‘sage’ etc..etc.. but can’t customise the GUI. These guys are smart. They just don’t realise that a GUI can be changed. Very few programs allow you to change it, so their mental model of normal GUIs doesn’t fit with Firefox.

    Rant over ;-)


  7. “Have you noticed that email addresses on Facebook aren’t hyperlinked as “mailto”s?”

    This seems more likely a spam prevention method. I personally also don�t like my email address to be shown publicly, especially not in a format that�s easy for bots to pick up. Spam is breaking the email system apart. Let�s hope technology like DKIM will help to prevent spam in the future, and we can use e-mail normally again.

    Dao: that�s good to hear.


  8. Laurens: But my email address is only visible to my friends, when they are logged in. How can it be a spam prevention measure? I’m not concerned about getting spam from my friends.

    Actually, it’s worse than I thought – it’s an image. You can’t even copy and paste it into your email program. It has to be retyped.

  9. One thing that has never been recognized by Mozdev’s is the social aspects of Newsgroups. They tend to be limited to “trusted” members for the most part, some are moderated, yet they are encumbered by the same “security” restictions as normal email in the current geckos. Newsgroups seem to me to be a perfect venue for social interaction. Mozdev has never recognized this potential. To quote from an above post: “Thunderbird: It would be great if Mozilla projects could work around their disinterest and make it happen anyway”
    This is the bane of open source dev. “if someone’s not interested, it ain’t gonna happen”

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