Skiff launches Skiff Mail to tackle Gmail with encryption

In recent years, Skiff has developed a privacy-focused, collaborative document editing platform that could be most succinctly described as “encrypted Google docs.” Now it comes to Gmail. The company is launching an email service called Skiff Mail that aims to be, well, encrypted Gmail — and ultimately much more than that.

Ultimately, Skiff co-founder and CEO Andrew Milich says Skiff wants to build a complete workspace, something as sweeping and broad as Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace. But the only way to do that is to fix 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 keep people’s most important information safe — including doctor’s notes, confirmation numbers, business emails, family chats and everything else — he says email felt like a “logical and crucial next step.”

Email is also a potential growth hack for Skiff. “It’s very, very difficult to move away from a service that you use as your primary identity today,” Milich says, “your main communication layer, the way you actually live on the Internet, is out there.” In other words, for every user who goes to Skiff Mail instead of Gmail, that’s another person for whom Skiff’s other products are just a click away. Currently Skiff is free for personal use and makes money through business subscriptions; Milich didn’t say what Skiff’s plans are for email, but said advanced features will likely be paid for later.

Rather than reinventing the wheel and coming up with a new Hey-level paradigm for how email works, Skiff starts off pretty simple. The app at the moment, which works on the web, Android and iOS, resembles Gmail without all the color 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 app. There is currently no support for custom domains. You can’t check your Gmail in Skiff, and there isn’t even much in the way of automation or organization tools. Milich says the simplicity is largely inherent in the design: “We didn’t go super ambitious and say, ‘We’re going to reinvent email with a new set of inboxes, a new set of filter rules, a new set of templates.’” goal instead was to make all the important stuff – text editing, search, managing attachments – work really well.

Skiff’s email client is pretty basic for now, but that’s by design.
Image: Skiff

That’s not to say Skiff Mail isn’t ambitious. Milich’s whole theory is that this privacy-first app strategy only works if people really like the apps. So many apps and services focused on privacy and security are practically shouting out their values ​​at you. The apps are harder to use, force you to manage more systems or click through a thousand warning messages, or just look like they were built by cryptographers rather than designers. (Because they usually were!) A Skiff advisor told me that many of these products are more like advocacy campaigns than competing products. Skiff tries to live up to all those same values: The company often publishes its research and much of its code is open source – but in a much more user-friendly package.

However, if you get Milich talking long enough, he’ll venture into a lot of funkier territory. One of Skiff’s recent projects was the integration of his document platform with the IPFS protocol, a decentralized network layer that users can now use to store their data. Milich also has ideas for bringing Skiff Mail to the Web3 community. He envisions that users with .ETH domain names use those addresses for, say, fully encrypted and decentralized messages, or perhaps enable wallet-to-wallet communication through MetaMask integration. “Encryption and public key/private keys are so much about what identity means at Skiff,” Milich says, “and it’s also what we see identity becoming in web3.”

There is growing evidence that “Gmail only private” is an attractive offer for many. Proton, the maker of ProtonMail, said last year it has more than 50 million users, while platforms like Fastmail and Librem Mail also continue to grow. Gmail remains the behemoth in the market, in fact the only company that really matters in email, but those looking for something different have more choices than ever.

But even if Skiff could figure out how to build the best and most personal email system ever, persuading people to switch email providers is an almost impossible task. The slowness 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 over Gmail. Even most of the email apps out there are mostly front ends on Gmail, not a massive system rethink. Milich says Skiff has some ideas on how to ease the transition, but acknowledges it’s a huge hurdle.

One of the tricky things about the idea of ​​”private email” is that, by design, no one can actually check email. It would be easy enough for Skiff to build an encrypted email platform if it were just Skiff users emailing other Skiff users, but… email doesn’t work that way. Instead, the team has tried to build a tool that can scale the security spectrum up and down. When Skiff users email other Skiff users, everything is encrypted by default and easy for senders to revoke or verify, but when you email outside the ecosystem, the SMTP protocols still work.

Milich hopes that as more providers embrace privacy, they will build tools to match and, by extension, enhance the entire ecosystem. But he thinks that, even for now, the least Skiff can do is say, “We’re keeping your most important communications safe, even for us,” which counts for something.

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