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why i pay for email services

Published Jun 24 2014 via RSS

I'm a rather happy customer of MyKolab.com which offers a hosted Kolab instance for public use. Note that I didn't say that I was a user or that I had an account there, but that I am a customer. Yes, I pay good money every month to use MyKolab. In fact, a couple of us in our family do so.

When there are so many big, popular services out there that do not cost anything to use, why would I pay money?


Here's the Internet-attention-span version:
  • I get more functionality now than I can elsewhere
  • and will get even more functionality in the future
  • and support free software
  • and get great customer support
  • and have my human rights respected
  • while not endangering human society in the process
The less abbreviated version of these points follows:


The easiest reason to explain why I pay for "webmail" is that it is feature complete. It's not just email: I get shared calendaring (something that we really rely on in the house here), mobile sync, server-side filtering, task lists, full-featured contacts, file storage (integrated with email, of course!) and lots of client flexibility. I can use a web browser, but I can also use a number of native clients including KDE's Kontact, Thunderbird and even free software clients on Android.

When I do use the web interface, I don't feel like tearing my hair out, either. The user interface is lovely to use and packed with the features I need. Like threading, folders that don't suck, filters and accepting  / sending invites to events.

Compared with GMail where the third most important feature according to Google is custom themes, the comparison is not even close.

There are, of course, other features which I can imagine, such as integrated instant messaging and video conferencing, that would make the service offered even more amazing, which brings us to the next reason I happily pay for "webmail".

Supporting development that supports me

The money I pay for MyKolab goes to the company that is the #1 contributor to both Kolab and the web interface used in Kolab: Roundcube. Features like the integrated file storage and the ability to "attach file from the cloud" are a nice example of this in action. All of these improvements are made in the upstream source code repositories and released as free (or if you prefer: open source) software.

Just as I try and buy products from companies that make the clothes I wear and the food I eat which also align with my ethical interests, I am happy to support a company that funds ethical software development.

I also know that if I have a specific need in common with others in the customer base, the chance of it being developed by Kolab Systems and appearing in the product in future is greatly improved.

Of course, since it is all free software, in the "worst case" scenario I could elect to implement the features I want or need and contribute them to the Kolab project so they can eventually appear in the hosted service.

GMail and friends? Not so much. They are proprietary systems designed for advertisers, who are their customers, not the users. MyKolab is also optimized for its customers: us, the users.

Great customer support

I ran into an issue the other day where logging in to the customer dashboard was taking longer than it really should have. I reported the issue and got a detailed response within a day. Within a week the issue was fixed in the development version of the code, and they sent me an email letting me know of that. As soon as the usual testing and validation steps are complete it will roll out to the production system.

My partner ran into a problem with mobile sync (a client-side problem, really) and got a similarly quick response which eventually helped sort out the issue. (Oh Android, you so inconsistent between versions!)

I love doing business with focused, entrepreneurial companies because they tend to care about the people using their products and services.

Privacy and personal respect (on the Internet?!)

The Terms of Services for MyKolab are just great, and the choice of legal jurisdiction (Switzerland) puts as much of a guarantee on the privacy of my data as possible. There is a real respect for my privacy demonstrated and they have as much legal and technological backing as is currently possible to back that up. I don't think that many people know just how amazing the security team is that oversees MyKolab, but they are world class security specialists that know way more than needed to secure such a system, which is exactly what you want.

MyKolab doesn't try and lock in your data, either: it's all available for you to move to another Kolab instance or some other system, or just do local backups of. That this is even noted in their FAQ, along with a number of other really good information. Perhaps my favorite sentence in the entire FAQ is this, from the question explaining why they do not provide per-user server-side encryption:
We don't believe in misleading our users in this way.
Reading through the FAQ you may notice a number of very nice things they do support, including PFS and stripping identifying information from mail headers when you send via MyKolab.

The mix of commitments, legal jurisdiction and technology implementation is about as close to perfect as one can get without self-hosting their own service. Of course, self-hosting simply isn't possible for the overwhelming number of people on the planet, and for many of the rest of us the time and effort involved makes it undesirable to do so. Thankfully there is a reasonable alternative out there.

The "free" services are a danger to society

Obviously, the companies providing free services are not doing it out of the goodness of their heart. When you use any of the big "free" email providers you may not be giving them your money, but you are giving them your data and your attention which they use to generate advertising revenue. The terms of services covering these providers is pretty broad, and entirely in the favor of the company behind them. 

They have clear access to everything you communicate over their services. That  includes anything private in nature or business related; it includes who you communicate with, the full text of the messages and any attachments.

By putting their information in the hands of a company under such terms, users of these systems trade their privacy away as well as the privacy of everyone they communicate with over those services. This is not only user for advertising (which you may or may not find off-putting on its own), but by governments (foreign and domestic) to collect information on people. They are part of the new surveillance state.

This is not a theoretical possibility. Documentation showing that this has been going on for years is both concrete and voluminous. The governments involved do not even deny it anymore. Even under supposedly benevolent governments, these powers have been abused beyond their intended "legal" use. (I would argue those "legal" uses already represent violations of human rights; but I think the EFF does a better job of that than I could ever do). 

We used to fight against surveillance states. In the 20th century, millions gave up their lives in struggles against dictators who used surveillance as one of their primary means to retain control and target those they saw as threats, killing millions of innocents in the process. After all that, now that we find ourselves in a period of relative peace and unparalleled global communication, people have willingly cooperated in the creation of the largest and most powerful surveillance system ever constructed by humans.

Have we learned nothing? Do we have so little respect for the sacrifices and struggles of our forebears?

Choosing not to be complicit in the construction of the surveillance state is worth every penny I spend on services such as MyKolab. Getting tons of features, supporting the development of the software and having a company who is actually on my side is icing on that cake.

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