Mailpile: Email that does privacy and search brilliantly


Back in 2013, I wrote about how the hosting industry is losing customers to proprietary mail platforms. I also announced that we would be supporting Geary, the email client from Yorba. Unfortunately, the Geary campaign didn’t reach the target they set. Even though that campaign didn’t work out, I still believed that supporting the development of free software through crowdfunding is a positive way to create beautiful, functional and feature-rich applications. Enabling the industry to grow using open standards, not limited interoperability with giants.

Then I discovered Mailpile and made the decision to offer our support to the project. We pledged $5,000 to Mailpile. Even though they’d already reached their stated target, more will help sustain the development and produce an even more attractive email client. That can only be a good thing.

What is Mailpile?

Mailpile is a modern, web-based email client offering user-friendly encryption and privacy features. It was initially developed by a three-person team in Iceland.


Why do I like it?

Mailpile has got a combination of features I can’t get elsewhere. It’s free software, so I can run it on my own server. It’s web-based so I can access it from anywhere. It takes privacy seriously, ensuring my email is signed, encrypted and stored safely. And it has a snappy search so I can find old correspondence from a half-remembered sentence.

For hosting companies like ourselves, Mailpile looks to be an email client that our users have come to expect. Without being tied to the big names. They’re offering search and speed: two things that have come up time and again as lacking in existing offerings. Their focus on making strong security usable by everyone also comes at exactly the right time.

They get the hardest thing right. Encryption works, and it’s the smoothest I’ve ever seen it. Fiddly details melt away: key management, key retrieval, when to sign and when to ask for my password.

If you’ve used PGP for a few years, you’ll know the suffering that comes with it. I assumed it had to be hard for the user too, but Mailpile has proved me wrong – it had barely a question to ask me!

It aces search too. No query is too much trouble; it reliably spits lists of messages back in less than a second.

As for privacy, I dug into the installation; it really does store all my email and its logs encrypted. That’s more paranoid than I’d have been, and I’m grateful for it.


For this part-time, impatient Linux jockey, installation was easy. I typed exactly what it said, and it started as promised. Mailpile doesn’t (yet) present a secure web interface under its own steam, but if you’ve configured SSL, you can get it done in 10 minutes. I took some extra precautions to lock it down, since the team advise that Mailpile’s web interface isn’t quite ready for exposure to the internet.

Mailpile makes a great first impression to a hacker: a 10-minute manual install (mostly downloads) is fabulous for a complex piece of software. 5 minutes after that, it started hoovering email from my two accounts into its database.

It feels like a clean design – I could get right into my Inbox, reply to messages and there are no moving parts to worry about. It kept my inbox up to date, and quietly decrypted messages.

There is room for improvement

In the interest of honesty, I also wanted to share some of the areas where Mailpile still has room for improvement. After all, at the time of writing this, the program still isn’t fully developed.


You need to remember the glimpses of what a brilliant program Mailpile is about to be, because it will give you moments where you question it.

Mailpile notifications box: "Many Icelanders believe in elves and magical hidden people" etc.

The interface works but will have you on your guard. Mailpile forgets about its keyboard shortcuts. Or maybe after a productive morning, it decides to take it slow and starts to take 5-10 seconds to open a message. A stream of perky notifications do nothing to soothe me as it grinds away.

I like to think I’m helping it through its difficult day when I hit F5, which is very often because it swaps the messed-up sludgy interface with a working one very quickly. But I could never call it fast.

My server often sits at 100% processor usage. It’s heating up my data centre ever so slightly. Is it still reading my huge message archive? It might be, I can’t tell. I restart Mailpile every couple of days out of suspicion, and it responds instantly again.

And Mailpile is hungry for your RAM – it won’t fit into a cheap 1GB system. I’ve given it 4GB, but I want it to be happy. Can make it happier and faster with more? I love Mailpile, I want to give Mailpile whatever it wants.

You want something that’s finished? You can have finished somewhere else, Mailpile has vision and you’ve got to see it too.

How has the vision progressed?

As I mentioned earlier, Mailpile ran a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2013 so that its main author Bjarni Rúnar Einarsson could take it from being a hobby to a full-time job, paying two more team members to drive development. We contributed because we believed this was the single most important new piece of free software that we’d see this decade.

Development stopped and started a couple of times, but continues nearly four years on.

Bjarni still runs a tight bug tracker. Users are sending new issues every day, all of them getting polite and useful responses. He’s enforcing a tight code of conduct, crunching through bugs and helping his early users improve the software.

Mailpile is ready if you are

There is so much to like about Mailpile, and so much that you get right now for free. If you self-host your email and have the server space free, Mailpile’s search will be a big improvement on what you’ve got. The interface to email cryptography feels spot-on. And the web interface shows the way to something that’ll be light and easy to operate once the response times are sorted out. I recommend Mailpile to brave hackers whose email is stuck in a rut.

Mailpile sits well on top of Bytemark’s Symbiosis platform, which takes care of the part that Mailpile doesn’t – receiving mail from the internet. I used it for indexing my half-million message archive.

In the meantime, if you’ve tried it I’d love to hear your experiences on the Bytemark forum.

Mailpile: IndieGoGo Campaign from Brennan Novak on Vimeo.

Looking for some other tools to install on a new server? Take a look at the feedback we got when we asked our Twitter followers about the first things they install.