AMP for email is a terrible idea

Google just announced a plan to “modernize” email, allowing “engaging, interactive, and actionable email experiences.” Does that sound like a terrible idea to anyone else? It sure sounds like a terrible idea to me, and not only that, but an idea borne out of competitive pressure and existing leverage rather than user needs. Not good, Google. Send to trash.

See, email belongs to a special class. Nobody really likes it, but it’s the way nobody really likes sidewalks, or electrical outlets, or forks. It not that there’s something wrong with them. It’s that they’re mature, useful items that do exactly what they need to do. They’ve transcended the world of likes and dislikes.

As evidence consider the extreme rarity of anything other than normal versions of those things. Moving sidewalks, weirdo outlets, sporks — they only exist in extreme niches like airports and lunchables. The originals have remained unchanged for as long as millennia for a good reason.

Email too is simple. It’s a known quantity in practically every company, household, and device. The implementation has changed over the decades, but the basic idea has remained the same since the very first email systems in the ’60s and ’70s, certainly since its widespread standardization in the ’90s and shift to web platforms in the ’00s. The parallels to snail mail are deliberate (it’s a payload with an address on it) and simplicity has always been part of its design (interoperability and privacy came later).

No company owns it. It works reliably and as intended on every platform, every operating system, every device. That’s a rarity today and a hell of a valuable one.

But the tech industry has never been one to let elegance, history, or interoperability stand in the way of profit (RIP Google Reader), so that’s not much of an argument. Still, I thought it worth saying.

More important are two things: the moat and the motive.

The moat is the one between communications and applications. Communications say things, and applications interact with things. There are crossover areas, but something like email is designed and overwhelmingly used to say things, while websites and apps are overwhelmingly designed and used to interact with things.

It’s fundamentally useful to have a divide here the way it’s useful to have a divide between a book about fire and a book of matches.

Emails are static because messages are meant to be static. The entire concept of communication via the internet is based around the telegraphic model of exchanging one-way packets with static payloads, the way the entire concept of a fork is based around piercing a piece of food and allowing friction to hold it in place during transit.

The moat between communication and action is important because it makes it very clear what certain tools are capable of, which in turn lets them be trusted and used properly.

We know that all an email can ever do is say something to you (tracking pixels and read receipts notwithstanding). It doesn’t download anything on its own, it doesn’t run any apps or scripts, attachments are discrete items, unless they’re images in the HTML, which is itself optional. Ultimately the whole package is always just going to be a big , static chunk of text sent to you, with the occasional file riding shotgun. Open it a year or ten from now and it’s the same email.

And that proscription goes both ways. No matter what you try to do with email, you can only ever say something with it — with another email.

If you want to do something, you leave the email behind and do it on the other side of the moat.

This is the great genius and curse of email, that all you can do is send messages back and forth. It’s not always the best option, but it’s rarely the worst. If it’s more complicated than that, you use something other than email: a chat app, a video call, a file host. These useful items are often located adjacent to email, sometimes closely integrated, but they’re never actually part of it. This is a good thing. The closest you get is little things like adding something automatically to your calendar or scraping flight info from an itinerary. Ultimately it’s still just reading something.

What Google wants to do is bridge that moat, essentially to allow applications to run inside emails, limited ones to be sure, but by definition the kind of thing that belongs on the other side of the moat.

Why do this? Are we running out of tabs? Were people complaining that clicking “yes” on an RSVP email took them to the invitation site? Were they asking to have a video chat window open inside the email with the link? No. No one cares. No one is being inconvenienced by this aspect of email (inbox overload is a different problem), and no one will gain anything by changing it.

Well, almost no one. Which brings us to the motive.

AMP is, to begin with, Google exerting its market power to extend its control over others’ content. Facebook is doing it, so Google has to. Using its privileged position as the means through which people find a great deal of content, Google is attempting to make it so that the content itself must also be part of a system it has defined.

“AMP started as an effort to help publishers, but as its capabilities have expanded over time, it’s now one of the best ways to build rich webpages,” it writes in the blog post announcing the AMP for Gmail test. No, it isn’t. AMP is a way to adapt and deliver, on Google’s terms, real webpages built with real tools.

The excuse that the mobile web isn’t fast enough is threadbare, and the solution of a special Google-designed sub-web transparently self-serving. It’s like someone who sells bottled water telling you your tap runs too slow.

AMP for email is just an extension of that principle. People leave Gmail all the time to go to airline webpages, online shops, social media, and other places. Places that have created their own user environments, with their own analytics, their own processes that may or may not be beneficial or even visible to Google. Can’t have that!

But if these everyday tasks take place inside Gmail, Google exerts control over the intimate details, defining what other companies can and can’t do inside the email system — rather than using the natural limitations of email, which I hasten to reiterate are a feature, not a bug.

And as if that play wasn’t enough, the other one is as baldly avaricious as anything the company has ever done. Dynamic content in emails. Where have I heard that one before? That’s right: it’s Google’s entire business model for offering a free email service. Ads.

What is the vast majority of “live” content on the web, stuff that needs to call home and update itself? Not articles like this one, or videos or songs — those are just resources you request. Not chats or emails. Cloud-based productivity tools like shared documents, sure, granted. But the rest — and we’re talking like 99.9 percent here — is ads.

Ads and trackers that adapt themselves to the content around them, the data they know about the viewer, and the latest pricing or promotions. That’s how Google wants to “modernize” your inbox.

Does “engaging, interactive, and actionable email experiences” ring a little different now?

Don’t use this. Don’t encourage it. AMP and other initiatives like it are already a blight on the web, and they will be equally bad for email.

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Mixmax raises $10.35M to improve email

Hundred of startups have tried to kill it, but email is still alive and well. That doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon, though. Mixmax, a startup that aims to make email more useful for businesses, today announced that it has raised a $10.35 million from Creandum’s Carl Fritjofsson and SaaStr’s Jason Lemkin. Previous investors Michael Dearing, Harrison Metal and Floodgate also participated in this round.

At its core, Mixmax is an extension for Gmail, Inbox by Google and Salesforce that brings new features like one-click scheduling for meetings, templates and the ability to schedule emails to these tools (with support for Outlook scheduled for Q4 of 2018). In addition, Mixmax allows users to easily track when emails are opened, which links people clicked and more. Combine that with copious other statistics and it’s probably no surprise that Mixmax co-founder and CEO Olof Mathé tells us that the service is especially popular with sales, success and recruiting teams.

The company currently has over 10,000 customers. Most of them are in small and medium businesses, but Mixmax plans to use the new funding to expand upmarket, too. To do this, the team plans to add a number of new features to the service in the near future, including a new mobile interface, embeddable calendars, support for voice dialing and SMS, as well as new team features and the ability to proactively nudge you to reach out to people based on your prior interactions. Mixmax also plans to use the new funding to grow its team from 18 to 50 employees.

“Email is the default communications channel for talking across organizational boundaries, but it wasn’t designed for business – we’re fixing that,” said Mathé. “We have solved a simple but all too common problem for people in customer-facing roles — knowing when to talk to which contact and how to reach them most effectively. Best of all, you don’t need to change anything in your existing workflow to reap the benefits since we sit on top of your existing tool chain.”

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ProtonMail encrypted mail service adds support for Apple Mail, Outlook and Thunderbird

Mr. Robot’s email service of choice just expanded its support for a handful of popular email clients. ProtonMail just introduced a new tool, called ProtonMail Bridge, that could expand its relatively niche appeal to more mainstream users who aren’t yet comfortable with giving up their email client habits.

ProtonMail, built around the encryption standard known as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), previously required users to use its own apps or webmail service. Now, users loyal to common mail clients Apple Mail, Thunderbird, Outlook or anything else that supports IMAP and SMTP can run ProtonMail Bridge in the background to enable a ProtonMail account to play nice with one of those newly supported clients.

The process maintains the core offerings of ProtonMail: end-to-end encryption, meaning that only a sender and receiver can view an email, and zero-access encryption, meaning that the email provider can’t see your emails even if it wanted to.

“The best part is that this does not require modifying your email client or making changes to your existing workflow,” the company writes in its announcement. “Use email like you have always used it, and the Bridge will automatically encrypt and decrypt messages in the background.”

ProtonMail notes that Bridge users will enjoy some added convenience, including the ability do full body text searches and to manage multiple accounts. While ProtonMail is a useful if not perfect encrypted email client, the company reminds users, as always, that encrypted email won’t save you if anyone gains access to your device itself.

Featured Image: Stewart Bremner/Moment/Getty Images

ProtonMail bolts on an encrypted contacts manager and digital signing for contacts

Another neat addition to end-to-end encrypted email client ProtonMail: It’s added a zero-access encrypted contacts manager that also digitally signs the contact info you store in it.

The new features have been added to v3.12 of ProtonMail’s web client, with the Swiss-based startup saying it’s working on also bringing the feature to its Android and iOS apps.

In a blog post announcing the contacts manager, it says the feature is a security benefit especially to those with a strong need to keep sources confidential — such as journalists — although it’s worth noting that any email addresses stored in the contacts manager are not encrypted (so this only applies to phone numbers and addresses).

ProtonMail writes:

The addition of encrypted contact fields brings many security benefits. For example, if you are a journalist with a confidential source, it is very important to protect the phone number or address of that source. Using the notes field in contacts, you can also add other information about the contact that will be protected with zero-access encryption. In order to do email filtering, we do not use zero-access encryption for email addresses — doing so also does not significantly improve privacy because as an email service, we necessarily must know who you are emailing in order to deliver the message.

It adds that it’s digitally signing contacts to “verify the integrity of contacts data” — offering users a “cryptographic guarantee that nobody (not even ProtonMail) has tampered with your contacts”.

The new digital signatures are used for all contact fields, including the email address, with signed (and thus untampered) contacts being denoted by a tick icon displayed alongside them.

ProtonMail‘s zero access encrypted email service exited beta in March last year. The company offers both a free e2e encrypted email client, with limited storage and feature, and paid tiers that beef up available capacity and capabilities.

It tells TechCrunch the new digital signature verification for contacts is available for all users.

While the e2e encrypted contact fields feature is currently only available for paid users — although co-founder Andy Yen says “this may change in the future”.

“In our view, verifying the authenticity of contacts data is even more important than hiding contacts data which is why digital signature verification is available for everyone,” he adds.

The full implementation of both features can be examined by outsiders via ProtonMail’s source code, which it open sources.

The company is also trailing a number of additional security enhancements that it says will build on the new contacts manager — and are coming in 2018.

“For example, our new contacts manager can also be extended to store public keys, which is an essential component for both sending PGP messages to people who don’t use ProtonMail, verifying the integrity of the keys themselves, and verifying the authenticity of received messages via digital signatures,” it notes, adding: “We are working on these, and many other security enhancements, and look forward to sharing them with the ProtonMail community in the future.”

The pro-privacy startup reported a boost in sign ups for its email service a year ago, following the election of Donald Trump in the US.

Yen says ProtonMail has around five million users at this stage — across its email product and a VPN service it also now offers.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Email marketer SendGrid up 13% following IPO

Marketing email company SendGrid had a decent first day on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday. After pricing shares at $16, the company closed at $18.03, or up almost 13%.

The Denver-based company had raised $131 million after pricing its IPO at $16, above the expected range of $13.50 to $15.50. SendGrid also upsized its IPO, selling 8.2 million shares, instead of 7.7 million.

SendGrid helps businesses like Spotify or Airbnb send email confirmations, password reminders and more. The company says it has processed more than a trillion emails, including over a billion per day.

Sameer Dholaki, CEO at SendGrid told TechCrunch that most of the company’s growth is organic. Customers are usually coming to SendGrid’s website on their own volition, without having been approached by sales reps.

The customers start out with a free trial and then end up paying a monthly fee to use SendGrid services. SendGrid competes with SparkPost, MailChimp and divisions of Amazon, Oracle and Salesforce, but Dholaki likes to think SendGrid has the “Kleenex” brand, or the most known name in the business.

Byron Deeter, partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, said he invested in SendGrid because “email is the fundamental backbone of business communications and that’s not changing anytime soon.” SendGrid “manages scale and reliability in an unparalleled way.”

Revenue for 2016 was $79.9 million, compared with $58.5 million in 2015 and $42.3 million the year before. The business is unprofitable, losing $3.9 million last year, compared to $5.9 million in 2015.

According to the “risk factors” section of the IPO filing, SendGrid warns that “if we are unable to maintain consistent revenue or revenue growth, our stock price could be volatile or decline, and we may not achieve or maintain profitability.”

The company raised at least $80 million in venture funding, dating back to 2009. The largest shareholders prior to the IPO were Foundry Group, Bessemer Venture Partners, Highway 12 Ventures and Bain Capital Ventures. SendGrid got its start in a Techstars accelerator in Boulder, Colorado.

Says Dholaki, SendGrid is “hoping to really get Colorado tech on the map.”

Kinder, gentler debt collector TrueAccord raises $22 million

Bringing debt collection into the age of the soft touch, email and text-based world of the 21st century has netted TrueAccord $22 million in a new round of funding.

I first wrote about the company three years ago (time flies) and since then the company has added a 70 new customers and is managing the debt of roughly 1.8 million individuals and businesses (to the tune of approximately $1.6 billion).

Then as now, the company promised a softer collecting style than the typical harassing phone calls of the debt collection agencies of yore.

The company communicates via email, text messaging and social media (which, to my mind, exchanges one kind of persistent hell for another).

“You can think of TrueAccord like a marketing and sales campaign, just for debt collection,” Ohad Samet wrote to me in an email. “You get our first communication based on your debt parameters (one of several possible emails), and then based on your behavior (emails opened, text messages you reply to, browsing pattern on our website, conversation with our call center) the system continues to personalize the experience in channel, frequency, tone, and payment arrangement until it finds something that works for you.”

Through TrueAccord a user can negotiate down their debt burden (if they’re in financial distress) or get a personalized payment plan. Users can also ask for more documents, report bankruptcy, browse on their mobile devices, and get updates on the status of their debt.

Using algorithms (because who doesn’t), the company also reduces the number of times it reaches out to a customer to an average of three per-week from several calls a week, according to the company.

The company’s growth reeled in Arbor Ventures Fund as the lead investor for the round, with additional money coming from Abhor, Nyca Investment Partnership, Assurant Growth Investing, Caffeinated Capital Fund, Felicis Venture, TenOneTen and Crystal Towers, according to a statement.

The company said it would use the new money for product development, building out its internal auditing and compliance capabilities and expanding into markets.

“TrueAccord is redefining the debt collections industry through a digital approach for debt recovery,” said Melissa Guzy, co-founder and managing partner at Arbor Ventures. “This unique approach is making a positive impact on an overlooked industry ripe for innovation and empowering many of the estimated 77 million people in debt to get on a path to better financial health.”  

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