Skiff launches Skiff Mail to take on Gmail with encryption


Skiff launches Skiff Mail to take on Gmail with encryption

Skiff has spent the past few years building a privacy-focused, collaborative document editing platform that’s best described as “encrypted Google Docs.” Now it comes to Gmail. The company launches an email service called Skiff Mail that aims to be encrypted Gmail — and eventually much more than that.

Ultimately, Skiff co-founder and CEO Andrew Milich says Skiff wants to build a complete workspace, something as comprehensive and comprehensive as Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace. But the only way to do that is to solve email, which in many ways is the core of both platforms. “It’s the most private corpus of our lives, you know?” says Milich. In an effort to protect people’s most important information — including doctor’s notes, confirmation numbers, work email, family chats, and everything else — email feels like a “logical and critical next step.”

Email is also a potential growth hack for Skiff. “It’s really, really hard to move away from a service that you’re using today when your main identity,” Milich says, “is your main plane of communication, which is how you actually live online, outside of it.” in other words, for every user who goes to Skiff Mail instead of Gmail, that’s another person with Skiff’s other products just a click away. At the moment, Skiff is free for personal use and makes money from business subscriptions; Milich didn’t say what Skiff’s plans are for email, but said advanced features will likely come at a cost later.

Instead of reinventing the wheel and coming up with a new hey-level paradigm for how email works, Skiff starts off pretty simple. The app, which currently works on web, Android, and iOS, looks like Gmail without all the colors and UI cruft. It’s almost all text, with folders on the left and a reading view for your current message on the right. In other words, it’s an email app—a pretty barebones one at that. There is currently no support for custom domains. You can’t check your Gmail in Skiff, and there aren’t even many automation or organization tools. Milich says the simplicity is largely due to the design: “We weren’t super ambitious and said, ‘We’re going to reinvent email with a new set of inboxes, a new set of filtering rules, a new set of templates.'” The goal was instead, all the important things – text editing, search, attachment management – work really well.

Skiff’s email client is pretty basic at the moment, but that’s by design.
Image: Skif

That’s not to say that Skiff Mail doesn’t have ambitions. It’s just that Milich’s whole theory is that this “privacy-first-app” strategy only works if people actually enjoy using the apps. So many apps and services that focus on privacy and security practically scream their values ​​at you. The apps are harder to use, force you to manage more systems or click through a thousand alerts, or just look like they were made by cryptographers rather than designers. (Because they usually were!) A Skiff consultant told me that many of these products look more like advocacy campaigns than competing products. Skiff tries to live up to all of these values: the company often publishes its research, and much of its code is open source — but in a much more user-friendly package.

Get Milich talking long enough, however, and he’ll start drifting into much funkier territory. One of Skiff’s recent projects was to integrate its document platform with the IPFS protocol, a decentralized network layer that users can now use to store their data. Milich also has ideas to bring Skiff Mail to the Web3 community. He envisions users with .ETH domain names using those addresses for things like fully encrypted and decentralized messaging, or perhaps enabling wallet-to-wallet communications via the MetaMask integration. “Encryption and public key/private keys have so much to do with what identity is at Skiff,” says Milich, “and we’re also seeing identity becoming web3.”

There’s mounting evidence that “Gmail but private” is a compelling proposition for many. Proton, the maker of ProtonMail, said last year that it had more than 50 million users, while platforms like Fastmail and Librem Mail also continue to grow. Gmail remains the behemoth in the market, practically the only company that really matters in the email space, but those looking for something different have more choices than ever.

But even if Skiff could figure out how to build the largest, most private email system ever conceived, getting people to switch email providers is a near-impossible task. The inertia is enormous. Switching email accounts is like changing phone or credit card numbers, something you only do when absolutely necessary. That’s why most companies don’t even try to take on Gmail. Even the majority of existing email apps are mostly front-ends on top of Gmail, not major overhauls of the system. Milich says Skiff has some ideas on how to ease the transition, but acknowledged it’s a major hurdle.

One of the tricky things about the idea of ​​”private email” is that nobody can actually control email. It would be easy enough for Skiff to build an encrypted email platform if it were just Skiff users sending emails to other Skiff users, but… that’s not how email works. Instead, the team has attempted to create a tool that scales the security spectrum up and down. When Skiff users send emails to other Skiff users, everything is encrypted by default and easy for senders to revoke or verify, but when sending emails outside of the ecosystem, the SMTP protocols still work.

Milich hopes that as more and more vendors embrace data protection, they will develop tools to improve the ecosystem as a whole. But he thinks that even for now, if the least Skiff can do is say, “We will keep your most important communications safe, even from us,” that matters.

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