Power

This tiny startup thinks it can do email better than Google

After years of building email apps, Edison decided the only way to fix email was to do it from the ground up. With OnMail, it's taking on Gmail head on.

Email icons floating on a black background

A new batch of email services is trying to unseat Gmail with privacy, design and useful features.

Image: MirageC/Getty Images

There's a note stuck to the wall inside the San Jose offices of Edison, a startup that makes AI-heavy email apps. It's become almost a company motto, the answer to so many of Edison's recent product debates and design questions. And over the last two years, it's pushed the team to try and reinvent email altogether.

It says, "Why build another Gmail?"

Edison's been building email apps for years. Its products make all the same promises countless other would-be-email-fixers do: faster, better-looking, fewer ads, get in and get out. Eventually, the Edison team hit the same wall all the others do: that all the things that make email great also make it terrible. Open standards and decades of history make email a uniquely valuable communication tool, but they also come with privacy problems, feature creep, and the never-ending onslaught of emails you'd rather not get.

Edison believes it can build an email experience that respects users' privacy and attention, gives them control over their inbox and doesn't require countless hours of maintenance. But that takes more than just a new app.

So instead, Edison built a completely new email service. It's called OnMail, meaning anyone who signs up will get a new email address ending in @onmail.com. About that name: The company landed on it after much debate and much domain-shopping, and still doesn't seem sure they love it. The service they like: It's the result of more than two years of work, as Edison wrote its own libraries, its own apps, its own everything. "Because Google is the competitor, we recognized we had to build it from the ground up," Edison CEO Mikael Berner told me. It took longer than he planned. But now it's ready.

OnMail\u2019s Accept Contact dialog OnMail offers a better system for deciding who's allowed to email you in the first place. Screenshot: Courtesy of Edison

OnMail offers a number of new ideas about how email should work, like a better system for deciding who's allowed to email you in the first place and a simpler filing system for messages. More than that, it's a bet that email is just in need of a reboot. Gmail just turned 16 and has only gotten busier and more complex in that time. Outlook's even older and busier. Rather than keep stacking new ideas on top of old ones, Edison decided to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Edison's not the only company on this path, of course. ProtonMail has found success with its privacy-focused email service, and Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are preparing to launch their own service, Hey, in the coming months. In fact, Hey's 25-point manifesto listing everything wrong with email maps pretty directly to Edison's thinking. And, for that matter, to the original Gmail idea. "Unlike other free webmail services," the company wrote in the blog post launching Gmail in 2004, "Gmail is built on the idea that users should never have to file or delete a message, or struggle to find an email they've sent or received."

In other words, everybody knows what email ought to be. And the tech world is in the midst of launching a new generation of ideas. The real question, for Edison and for everyone, is whether anyone's actually ready to quit Gmail.

The new new new Gmail

The hard thing about designing an email service is that you're only ever in charge of half the experience. You can invent all the cool features you want, but if they break for the millions of people who still use Yahoo and Earthlink, they don't really matter.

Still, by building its own service, Edison's been able to do a couple of clever things, starting with a new approach to building your inbox. If you use OnMail, the first time a new address emails you, the sender's name shows up at the top of your inbox. You can accept it, meaning that message and future ones will slot into your message list. Or you can block it, and never see that sender again. It's much simpler than going through the standard unsubscribe rigamarole, and OnMail can catch and kill every future message.

Over time, Edison came to rethink the whole notion of the inbox. Within OnMail, you can still see all your messages in a row, but you can also let Edison's algorithms bundle all your travel confirmations, receipts and newsletters into their own spaces. (That kind of super-detailed bundling, by the way, was one of the features people loved about Google's now-departed Inbox app — but hasn't made its way back into Gmail except in those big inbox tabs. It may have felt like too big a change for Gmail's billion-plus users.)

As they went along, the Edison team found a laundry list of smaller things they felt like OnMail could fix. They nixed the standard 25-megabyte attachment limit by building an invisible file-sharing service that lives inside OnMail. They rebuilt search so you can type "photos from emily last week" instead of "from: emily@protocol.com has:attachment after:3/30/2020."

When they were finished, in some ways, the OnMail team’s take on email looked more like Facebook Messenger than Gmail. They got rid of, or at least hid, most of the filing and formatting buttons in email — when you're done with an email, you just click "Done" and it's gone. They hid signatures, disclosures and more standard email bloat. Most of all, Berner said, Edison optimized for speed. "The speed and reliability, given you're here for two and a half hours a day, that has to be the thing."

New email, who dis?

I've seen an early version of OnMail, and it's a delightfully spartan, simple, fast app. But is that enough? Edison's hoping that for people who spend a lot of time in their inbox, it might be. Apps like Superhuman have certainly proven the theory: that at least some people are unhappy with email. Some of them are unhappy enough to pay $30 a month for something better.

While OnMail is free, Edison's job might be even harder. Superhuman is just a really nice Gmail app, but Edison has to convince people to get a new email address altogether. More specifically, to get out of Gmail. Email may be an open standard, but Gmail absolutely dominates the market. More than 2 billion people use it, compared to 400 million on Outlook and 200 million for Yahoo Mail. The younger the user, too, the more likely they are to pick Gmail. And while people might switch email addresses when they change jobs or email providers, the lifespan of a personal email address is long. Many users' email addresses are repositories of old chats, life plans, calendar events and contact lists — dumping that is not trivial, no matter how nice the alternative is.

Berner said Edison understands the size of the task at hand and is ready for the climb. "You've probably heard this so many times, but we don't need a billion users," he said. "We just need to start to make a difference, and then we can grow from there." He said that even in building an app, Edison realized that it doesn't need to be afraid of the mighty Gmail. "We feel like we did for email what Zoom did for conferencing, which is just to focus on the fact that it's sometimes unreliable even from the big providers. If you just make that better, given the amount of time people spend there, you have a huge advantage." Then he paused. "Turns out, it's really hard to make those things better."


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Initially, Edison hopes to lure users who want the cool addresses — you could be jennifer@onmail.com instead of jlaw245q@gmail.com. Berner also hopes there's a privacy angle for OnMail: "One of the ways to compete here is that [Gmail's] fundamental business model is built off of bringing marketers into your life through your inbox. And that's going to be hard for them to move away from." Edison, which plans to offer the service for free and eventually have additional paid business-focused features, can afford to kick marketers out and turn off tracking by default.

First, though, Edison has to get OnMail up and running. That means making sure the service works, making sure other providers see it as a valid sender — if OnMail screws up its reputation score and gets sent to spam everywhere, the whole thing's blown. So Edison's building a beta group slowly, hoping to launch publicly this summer. In the meantime it's testing and prodding and trying to fit this new service inside the complex, decades-old email infrastructure. They've figured out the hard way that you can't fix email all at once, even if you think you know how.

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