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Power

Basecamp’s founders are trying to start an email rebellion

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson spent two decades telling anyone who would listen that remote work really could work. Now that a pandemic proved them right, they're shouting about email instead.

Hey's compose mode

Hey is Basecamp's attempt to make email simpler, faster, and a lot less crazymaking.

Screenshot: David Pierce/Protocol

David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founder and CTO of Basecamp, is trying very hard to not say "I told you so." He and co-founder Jason Fried have been saying for years that eventually, something was going to happen that forced people to try remote work. When it did, they said, everyone who talked about "the magic of the whiteboard" and the need for the physical office would realize how wrong they were.

For years, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson wrote books and blog posts, ranted on podcasts, picked fights on Twitter. The message never changed, and neither did the playbook: to be as loud as possible until someone listened. "When you're trying to push a new movement, technical or organizational or whatever, whoever says protests or loud voices don't work is just ignorant," Heinemeier Hansson said.

Three months into the pandemic, the argument about the moral and economic superiority of the modern office is over. Remote work works. People can choose to go back to the office, but Heinemeier Hansson likens it to whether you like mint in your tea.

Now Heinemeier Hansson and Fried have found a new fight. The Basecamp team has spent years developing an entirely new email provider, called Hey. And Heinemeier Hansson and Fried have also spent the last several months telling anyone who will listen or read or retweet that everything about email is broken and email is too important not to fix it.

Their argument boils down to this: Email is fundamental to the internet. And it's great! "Long-form, asynchronous writing has inherent merit," Heinemeier Hansson said, "and email is the most successful implementation of that in the history of mankind." But email has become instead a stressful mess of to-do lists, reply-all fails and marketing junk. Even as others have tried to make inboxes smarter or easier to manage, Heinemeier Hansson and Fried reckon nobody's really tried to rebuild email, to bring it back to what made it great in the first place. That's what Hey attempts to do.

David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, the co-founders of Basecamp and co-creators of Hey. David Heinemeier Hansson (left) and Jason Fried, the co-founders of Basecamp and co-creators of Hey.Photo: Courtesy of David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried

By now, you probably know the stakes here. Email is the rare open platform that works for everyone. But it's changing. Three companies — Google, Microsoft and Verizon (which owns Yahoo and AOL) — control the overwhelming majority of the email universe. Google is particularly powerful, growing as the others slowly fade. Jacob Bank, Gmail's product manager, told me in 2017 that Gmail was already powerful enough to be able to set standards in a supposedly open ecosystem, and that power has only increased since then. If the current trend continues, email could effectively become another in a long list of Google messaging apps. And email users would be held captive by the data-collecting, ad-targeting machines on the other end.

Even worse, there's no easy way to stop Gmail, a massively popular free service from a massively successful company. "Gmail has basically frozen all innovation in email for a good decade," Heinemeier Hansson said. "Nothing happened because no one dared step close to Gmail." If this line of thinking sounds familiar, it should: It's become a common refrain in the tech world that nothing interesting has happened to email since Gmail's launch in 2004, and that we're ripe for a more private, more humane, less … 2004-ish version of email. Heinemeier Hansson and Fried didn't invent the thinking — they're just louder about it than most. "I look at all those factors," Heinemeier Hansson said, "and I go, like, it is going to be over my fucking dead body that we hand over email to Google."

Both founders readily admit that going mano-a-mano with Google is a dangerous game. But that's why they say Basecamp's in a perfect position to try this. After 20 years of running Basecamp as a stable, profitable business, they can afford to fail on this one. And they know they might.

Don't mistake that for lack of ambition, though. Just the opposite: Basecamp's only shot at success is to go as big as possible. That's why they spent what Heinemeier Hansson called "a stomach-turning amount of money" on the hey.com domain name, hoping it could become the kind of cool address people might switch for. It's why the service is full of new, different, occasionally middle-finger-y twists on the way email works. "You can't just go, 'excuse me, good sir, um, I have some objections,'" Heinemeier Hansson said. "No, you gotta blow up some railroads. You gotta sabotage some systems. You gotta come out swinging."

Hey's spy pixels warning Every time you get an email with a tracking pixel inside, Hey will gleefully tell you — and block it.Screenshot: David Pierce/Protocol

Most of the Basecamp team's recent rebelliousness, and seemingly the initial reason for building Hey, has to do with spy pixels. What were once known as "read receipts" have become something more insidious, they think: Senders can find out where users are, what device they're using, and much more information about them every time they open a message. Others call them "tracking pixels," most call them nothing and hope people never know. Heinemeier Hansson calls them spy pixels because it sounds scarier that way, and scary is the point. Hey blocks all spy pixels — even the ones cleverly hidden in images, or font references. It doesn't ask permission, it just blocks them.

Hey also gleefully tells you what it blocked and who's to blame. Every time you get an email from a provider that includes a spy pixel — which in just my first few days of testing included nearly every newsletter I subscribe to, a coupon from a winery and an alert from an app I use — a big purple warning message appears above the email letting you know that "Hey protected your privacy by blocking an email spy tracker in this thread." Hey is gleefully naming and shaming, as Heinemeier Hansson and Fried have been doing on Twitter as well.

The point of blocking spy pixels isn't just about Hey. It's Basecamp's opportunity to change the industry by making spy pixels unacceptable in polite company. "If you successfully brand shit like spy pixels as a pariah tactic, you can get it dropped across the board," Heinemeier Hansson said. (The tactic works: Selling facial-recognition tech to law enforcement is currently becoming a pariah tactic, forcing big companies that want to be seen as upstanding to stop or pause doing so.)

Hey was supposed to launch in April, which the founders swear was not an intentional callback to Gmail's launch on April 1, 2004. But coronavirus delayed Basecamp's plans, because nobody in April wanted to talk about email. Now, even as pandemics and protests continue to rage, Hey is finally beginning a slow public rollout. It costs $99 a year, and its business proposition is simple: You can pay Google with your privacy or Basecamp with your money. It's designed to be a total rethink of email, chock-full of its developers' opinions on how email should work. There's no way to get to Inbox Zero; there's not even an inbox. Hey instead calls it the Imbox, which Fried described as "for important and immediate things I want to know about." Everything else gets shoved off somewhere else.

The Hey menu Hey doesn't worry so much about folders and Inbox Zero — and it wants to get as many things out of your inbox as possible.Screenshot: David Pierce/Protocol

As for what goes where? You decide. Fried said there's no AI in Hey — "we're doing human intelligence, not artificial intelligence." Hey has a very basic spam filter, but the first time someone sends you a message, you decide where those messages should go: to the Imbox, to The Feed full of newsletters, or to the Paper Trail full of receipts and marketing stuff. Or, you can simply say you don't want to get these emails anymore, and Hey will stop them coming in altogether.

Hey doesn't have unread counters or turn notifications on by default, because who needs to be reminded to check their email? Hey doesn't allow signatures of any kind, because signatures have become bloated, image-heavy things filled with pointless legal disclaimers. You can't import your old email; you can't use Hey with another email client. To use Hey is to buy into its — and Basecamp's — worldview. This is what Heinemeier Hansson calls "Soup Nazi features," which is to say, they've done it the way they think is best, and if you don't like it you can go somewhere else. No hard feelings.

There's virtually no chance Hey will really challenge Gmail's place at the top of the email market. But that's OK with Fried and Heinemeier Hansson. Success to Basecamp looks something like 250,000 Hey users. (A pittance compared to Gmail's 1.5 billion, but they figure it's enough to make a real business and a dent in the ecosystem.) Failure looks like "five people show up and want to pay us $8 a month for email," Heinemeier Hansson said.

Right now, Hey is somewhere in between. Nearly 50,000 people have joined the waitlist for the app, which required sending the team an email with their feelings about email. Heinemeier Hansson said some people wrote one line, but others wrote poems, long letters, and one person even rewrote the words to The Spice Girls' "Wannabe" to be all about email. Regardless, everyone on the waiting list has already jumped through one hoop to get access to a new way of emailing — and Basecamp's hoping that's a good sign. But even if everybody bails at the end of their two-week trial, Heinemeier Hansson said he can live with that. "I just got to build the best email client I ever wanted." And if he can make trouble for the world's purveyors of spy pixels in the process, all the better. The rebellion was always bigger than an email app.

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