Setting up an email/communications startup at the dawn of 2008 is a fascinating challenge.

It’s a crowded space: There are lots of young companies in the same space, each promoting their own angle on solving the problem that they’ve identified. There are companies playing within the Outlook/Exchange framework. There are companies coming at it with Exchange replacements. There are companies focusing on collaboration rather than communication. There are companies with a web focus, others with a mobile focus, others with a social network focus. There are even at least two companies who are starting from the same technology platform that we are: SpiceBird, and whatever Scott, David, Sherman and Seth will be working on (don’t ask me what it is, I have no idea!).

For the record, I think that latter kind of competition is great. It’s great for two main reasons: product exploration, and project health.

From the product exploration POV, I think it’s good to see people like Spicebird taking the codebase Mozilla has built with the suite and then Thunderbird in mind, and presenting a fairly different interface to the same core functionality. Having even alpha quality product out there will generate feedback, which can inform all of us. With more smart people thinking about how to help users get more out of their email interactions, going at it independently, we end up with more stabs at the problem. In dynamic markets where products compete based on their value to users (as opposed to, say, strong-arm tactics), innovation happens, gets rewarded, and users end up better off.

From the project health point of view, I think it’s good to have various companies building products off of the Mozilla codebase in general. At the very least, it means that the platform won’t get too tied to any one product’s requirements. I don’t think there’s a huge risk of that happening, because Mozilla already supports several active products (Firefox, Thunderbird, Seamonkey, Komodo, Songbird, Miro, Joost, etc.). But having more people care about the mail/news bits should at least help with the engineering work we need to do there which is product-independent. There are long-standing architectural problems with the system which haven’t been fixed because of a lack of resources. With several companies betting on this platform, as long as the discussions happen in public and in good faith, we should be able to work together to improve things for all.

This notion of a rising tide lifting all boats is particularly important if you think about the long-term goals. For example, I encourage all mail companies, even those building on the Mozilla codebase, to think about the larger market, which is measured in hundreds and hundreds of millions of users. Looking at that market, and at the true competitive forces at play there, should help us avoid bickering over overlapping territory.

That said, I’m also hopeful that as we figure out MailCo’s roadmap and publish that, that we’ll be able to encourage _cooperative_ businesses to emerge as well, whether that’s through add-ons, professional services, or other relationships. I have no doubt that MailCo won’t be able to achieve its mission alone. Friendly competitors will help us get there, but I’ll probably spend more energy identifying partners, as I’ve already encountered business opportunities which won’t be a good fit for us, but would be great for the right partners.

Back to making christmas cookies. Meringues filled with chocolate ganache. Yum.

Privacy: the new global warming?

Privacy is an interesting meme. Like the weather, it’s something that everyone likes to talk about but few actually do anything about it. Maybe, like the weather, that’s slowly changing.

A few things have hit my radar recently:

  • In today’s NYT, an article about promoting a privacy “switch” in the war for search engine queries.
  • When Facebook announced its advertising program, the headline of the most influential French newspaper Le Monde went something like “Facebook sells customer data” (I’d link to it, but the archives are behind a pay wall, and I can’t find the specific story I’m remembering).
  • Lauren Weinstein talks about how http is losing value over https as ISPs start to modify the content of responses, violating the spec I’m sure.

I’ve been thinking more than usual about privacy since taking on the Mozilla job, in part because even though Mozilla is clearly very “pro-web”, it’s also “pro-privacy”. While webmail provides amazing flexibility to users, it’s not without issues. The privacy issues, in particular, are likely to be ignored by most users until it’s too late. Note that I don’t expect users to care, and I think it’s unreasonable to do so. I do expect organizations, companies, governments, and the odd activists to care. The question, then, becomes whether we can change global behaviors faster than we were able to in the environmental arena.

There are interesting analogies. The largest users of email (large ISPs) are also those with the most to gain from things like contextual advertising, and would have the largest costs if things like encrypted emails became standard.

Some government agencies are leaders in the space of consumer data protection (I hear about scandinavian countries in particular, but I suspect it’s broader than that), while others are fighting against cryptography because terrorists might use it. Like green technologies, coming up with a communications infrastructure which is vibrant, extensible, and secure, is a huge technical challenge.

I can imagine online privacy equivalents of carpooling lanes, smokestacks, big lobbies, and Kyoto. Maybe Thunderbird should be the hybrid car?

Philippe Starck on TED

Watching (and listening) to Philippe Starck is fun, and surprisingly easy to map onto my own beliefs about software and product design. A good way to end the week:

I particularly like the section in the middle about walking, and the difference between looking down, looking ahead, looking up, looking straight up, and looking inwards. It’s stunningly easy to apply to software designers.