Mailpile: Email that does privacy and search brilliantly

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I’ve been writing email for 20 years, and I’m not going to stop.

Mailpile is shooting to be the holy grail of email, and I want it to take me through the next 10. It’s ambitious, well-implemented, and has a great shot at succeeding. It’s so close to equalling to almighty GMail. Even though it’s unfinished, I’ve switched to using it every day, trusting half a million mesages to 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.

Sparkle and shine

Those headline features aren’t empty promises.

Mailpile gets 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, 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.

The dirt on Mailpile

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You need to remember the glimpses of what a brilliant program Mailpile is about to be, because it will give you dark moments, and you’ll need strength.

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 after 4 weeks? It might be, I can’t tell. I restart Mailpile every couple of days out of suspicion, and it responds instantly again.

Mailpile frightens me as a message sits in the Outbox for 30 minutes. Or incoming mail appears in uncomfortably large bursts, messages I saw on my phone hours earlier.

The mobile interface is only half-done, so I still call on K-9 Mail for my inbox, and that works well enough.

Sending attachments didn’t work for a few weeks, but then it got fixed!

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.

Vision and V1

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. Bytemark pitched in $5000 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. He has posted a plan for 2017, gamely acknolwedging how hard the project is and how far it has to go.

But, ah, crowdfunding and the community. Bjarni and his team generously (or masochistically) opened up their talent to the community’s opinion before the software was even half-way done.

There is clearly mission creep and I wince at time spent discussing experimental features that only crypto-nerds are going to be interested in. And of course I hope that Bjarni decides that performance is a feature that’s worth having before promoting it.

The user form is still an idea on the blocks, even after 3 years, so the community place is the fearsome land of Github bug tracker. I want to talk to more wide-eyed, ambitious Mailpile users, and I’m throwing my hat in to help.

Of course this is free software, and my vision is not Bjarni’s. Only he knows how long he’s willing to put in, and how he’ll grow the commnuity around his software. I met him for a coffee in Reykjavik the other week and I couldn’t help but be impressed with his deep knowledge, and commitment to the ideal of a free, privacy-respecting email client. Given how close it has come, and how many similar projects have failed, that’s not something that deserves a rush.

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. And after 4 weeks it finished slurping and indexing my half-million message archive.

In the mean time, good luck if you’re going to try it –  I’d love to hear your experiences on the Bytemark forum.