Issue 39

Google wants to ruin email

Delivered on 02 July 2019 by Justin Pyvis. About a 6 min read.

Who doesn't love email? Likely a lot of you, but probably because of what you receive through it (or how you manage your inbox) rather than the protocol itself. Email - or rather, the simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP) - is good at what it does. It lets anyone, anywhere, to send and receive messages regardless of what device or email application they happen to use. In that sense email is federated, distributed and decentralised in that it allows multiple small networks to talk to one another without giving up control.

Google is responsible for a large portion of email traffic through its aptly-named email service, Gmail. It has more than a billion users and as this graphic from Statista indicates, is neck and neck with Apple's default mail application in terms of usage:

But Google wants to capture more than mere market share; it wants to combine static with dynamic. Essentially, the "do no evil" company wants to take SMTP and modernise it using its own protocol, Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), which essentially allows applications/websites to run inside emails. If you use Gmail, you're already using AMP.

The big question is: why? Email is mature, simple and it just works. If you wanted something more than a reliable, static email message to solve your organisation's communication needs, then use something like Slack (although you shouldn't).

The answer is that it makes sense for Google. Its chat/email-alternative, "Hangouts", officially failed earlier this year. So it wants to further monetise email, a medium where it already has more than a quarter of the world's users. It has struggled on that front so far because given the federated, decentralised and distributed nature of email, it can only monetise it by using the data it collects from Gmail users (plus their correspondents) and through adverts shown in desktop users' inboxes. But it can't do anything with the email itself.

That's where AMP shakes things up. With AMP, Google can do oh so much more with a boring email. By turning email into an "interactive, dynamic" medium, it can run advertising anywhere it wants, auto-play videos, and track every single way you interact with any part of the email, all directly from your and your correspondents' inbox (and via any other service foolish enough to sign up to AMP). It's even able to display dynamic website content, after it strips it of competitors' branding, trackers and advertising, of course.

Just like that, Google controls even more of what we can see and do on the internet. First it killed off its end-to-end encryption project which would have done the opposite of AMP, i.e. help make email private and secure, and now it wants to ruin email altogether.

But you don't have to be a pawn in Google's latest evil scheme. I ditched Gmail several years ago and more people should do the same (see my recommendations below). An internet where everything is filtered through Google is one in which I do not want to take part, and you shouldn't either.

Some alternatives to Gmail

It would be lazy of me not to suggest a few alternatives to Gmail given that I just sledged it above. Any of the mainstream providers - Microsoft's Office 365, Apple Mail - are better than Gmail, but only slightly. If you want one that actually respects your data, consider the below list.

Note that not all have free options but if you don't want to be the product you should really pay for it, and the best time to do that is on Black Friday or Christmas, which is when most will run their annual promotions. Tip: use your own domain name so that you can move providers when/if required.

Learn more:

  • Mailbox - Native encryption, German provider »
  • Mailfence - Native encryption, Belgium provider »
  • ProtonMail - Android/iPhone app, native encryption, Swiss provider »
  • Runbox - Norwegian provider »
  • Startmail - Native encryption, Dutch provider »
  • Tutanota - Android/iPhone app, native encryption, German provider »

What do artificial intelligence and the Mississippi Company have in common

They all have/had legitimate promise and real world application but were over-hyped to the point that their downfall was inevitable. It's about time that the industry got together to release "a set of benchmarks for evaluating the performance of artificial-intelligence tools, aiming to help businesses navigate the fast-growing field".

From the other article, which is about the McDonald's $300 million acquisition of Dynamic Yield, an AI company, comes this gem:

"Dynamic Yield is part of a generation of companies whose core technology, while extremely useful, is powered by artificial intelligence that is roughly as good as a 24-year-old analyst at Goldman Sachs with a big dataset and a few lines of Adderall. For the last few years, startups have shamelessly re-branded rudimentary machine-learning algorithms as the dawn of the singularity, aided by investors and analysts who have a vested interest in building up the hype."

Learn more:

Like real wars, trade wars are expensive

Trump can boast about tariff revenue all he wants but the real costs of the trade war are dispersed amongst American companies and ultimately, consumers. But at least with tariffs, goods still flow. The same cannot be said for bans, such as the restrictions imposed on Huawei. The powerful tech lobby no doubt made that very clear and so over the weekend the administration decided to, in Huawei's words, do a "U-turn" on the ban against the Chinese tech giant. Good.

Learn more:

Facebook is already having problems with Libra

Well that didn't take long:

" money has changed hands so far. A number of partners said they would decide whether to join the association and make the payment after there is more clarity on how Libra will work, the executives from the seven companies said."

Learn more:

Other bits of interest

Image of the week

Another survey so take it with the appropriate amount of scepticism but in what should surprise no one, it seems voice has been over-hyped. The results showed "nearly half (46%) of respondents never use virtual assistants, emphasis on “never.” Another group (19%) use virtual assistants “rarely” (less than monthly). These are effectively non-users. Together these two groups represent 65% of the audience, while 29% (daily and weekly) is the active user base."

You would have to pay me a significant sum to install an Amazon Alexa / Google Home device in my house (it's already relatively easy to get them for free). Looks like I'm not alone.

This week's data breaches

For all the China hate, the United States gives back as good as it gets in terms of hacking other countries (probably better). However, it would get far more value if it spent those resources on ensuring its own network was secure.

I tend to think of government's approach to cyber security akin to its approach to infrastructure: lots of expensive bridges to nowhere [hacking foreign countries] while simultaneously skimping on the unglamorous maintenance of prior projects [domestic cyber security].

The breaches:

Issue 39: Google wants to ruin email was compiled by Justin Pyvis and delivered on 02 July 2019. Join the conversation on the fediverse at