Inside the life, death, rebirth, failure and resurrection of a beloved email app
When Essential announced it was killing Newton, a longtime superfan decided he'd rather buy it than watch it die. Again.
Screenshot: Courtesy of CloudMagic
When Essential announced it was killing Newton, a longtime superfan decided he'd rather buy it than watch it die. Again.
Justin Mitchell tried to buy the Newton email app for years. As CEO of Yac, "my whole life runs in my email app," he said. "Having a good email app is as important to me as having a good laptop." He'd tried them all, and Newton was his favorite — the clean design, the easy login on multiple devices, the support for tracking and signatures. It was the only app that had all the features Mitchell needed, especially circa 2015, when good email apps were even harder to come by.
In April, Mitchell finally got his way: He and Maitrik Kataria are now the co-owners of CloudMagic, the parent company (and original name) of Newton. The sale comes after years of turmoil for the company and the app, which has been through multiple owners while stagnating as a product. More than one company went out of business before figuring out how to make Newton work. So when Mitchell and Kataria announced the acquisition on Monday, they made a very clear promise: Newton's back. And they'll never let it die again.
The short, chaotic history of Newton begins with its founding as something other than an email app. "The idea was very simple," creator Rohit Nadhani told me in 2016. "We were going to be Google Desktop Search, but for all your cloud files." It would crawl your email, your Evernote, your Google Docs, your Dropbox, all in one search box. But Nadhani and his team quickly realized that most of what people were looking for was actually in their emails.
"You don't go back to your Facebook feed, even if somebody has shared a recipe," Nadhani said. "It's more like real time. But if something has been shared on email, you continuously go back." In building an email search engine, the CloudMagic team had built most of an email client — so they finished it, relaunched in 2013 as an email service, and took off.
It was August 2018 when Nadhani announced that Newton was shutting down. It had 40,000 subscribers paying $50 a year for the app, and over 4 million users in total, but Nadhani wrote that "the market for premium consumer mail apps is not big enough, and it faces stiff competition from high-quality free apps from Google, Microsoft and Apple." A few months later, Andy Rubin's Essential announced it had acquired CloudMagic. In February 2019, Nadhani announced Newton was available again, sort of: Under Essential's watch, Newton saw few changes or updates, and it seemed to be left for dead.
"That's the part of the story that makes zero sense to me," Mitchell said. "Why did Essential acquire them for such a large sum, and then do literally nothing with it for an entire year?"
Actually, a lot of things about Newton's history don't make sense to Mitchell. The company had always been clear about its issues, but rarely about its solutions. It didn't engage much with its community. Most of all, Mitchell said, Newton should have taken its business out of the app stores. "They lost 30% revenue right off the bat by keeping their subscriptions in the app store," he told me. By the beginning of 2020, even Mitchell had become disillusioned with Newton, moving himself and his team off the app.
But a month later, in February, Essential announced it was shutting down and offloading its assets. Mitchell saw an opportunity to keep his favorite email app alive, and maybe fix a few of its mistakes. He sent Rubin an email begging him to sell Newton, then emailed Nadhani asking the same question. Only Nadhani replied, saying he had nothing to do with CloudMagic anymore, but to email Rubin. So Mitchell tried that again, again to no response.
On March 16, Mitchell got an email from someone at Sherwood Partners, the company Essential had hired to offload its assets. Subject line: "Opportunity to Acquire Assets of Essential Products." Everything Essential made — its phones, its software, its IP — was up for sale. Mitchell replied that he didn't care about any of that, he just wanted Newton. Suddenly they were negotiating. "He sent us a Google Drive with all the info," Mitchell said, "and we went from there."
Justin Mitchell (left) and Maitrik Kataria are the new co-owners of CloudMagic, the parent company (and original name) of Newton.Photo: Courtesy of Justin Mitchell and Maitrik Kataria
For weeks, Mitchell, Kataria and their lawyers asked questions. How much did CloudMagic cost to run? How much tech debt had accumulated? They were told CloudMagic had other bidders — Mitchell said he knows of one for sure — but felt confident in their chances, because Essential was putting so much time into responding to their questions. Still, after lots of phone calls and file sharing, they were told they weren't the highest bidder.
So Mitchell reached out to Rubin again, pleading from one entrepreneur to another to sell the service to people who would take care of it, not some private equity firm or company that would bury the tech. Again, no response from Rubin. But shortly after, they got an email from Sherwood that they'd been selected. Mitchell said he can't say for sure that his email to Rubin swayed the vote in his favor, but he can't say it didn't.
Unfortunately for Mitchell and Kataria, that wasn't the end of the process. They ran into complications with Apple's App Store — starting with Apple rejecting their developer account because the company owned the Newton trademark. "Which they don't!" Mitchell said. (Apple abandoned the trademark in 2013.) They had to rename the company and set up new entities and bank accounts. Ultimately, they decided to just buy the whole CloudMagic company instead. "Before that, we did $18,000 worth of legal work," Mitchell said, "that actually amounted to nothing."
While negotiating, the buyers asked Essential to extend the deadline for the death of Newton, so the app wouldn't shut down completely. They put a banner inside the app for existing users, declaring it wasn't shutting down after all.
By mid-April, everything was done, and the new CloudMagic was up and running. (Mitchell wouldn't divulge the final price, saying it was confidential.) As part of the deal, Mitchell and Kataria had asked for 40 hours of time with the existing Newton team, to help them parse the app's millions of lines of code and understand how it worked. "That way," Mitchell said, "we get to do some training, just so we're not coming into this whole thing blind." They moved subscriptions out of the app stores and onto their website. Crucially, they set up a community page where users could talk about bugs and feature requests.
Going forward, Mitchell said his hope is to make some smart changes to the app. They'll do dark mode, he said, and make it work better with the iPad's cursor, plus he has some ideas about how Newton could work for teams. And he's very excited about integrating a calendar.
When I asked about the price — even back in 2016, at the height of Newton's popularity, Nadhani had told me he was worried there weren't enough people willing to spend $50 a year on email apps — Mitchell said that, actually, the world has kind of come around. Superhuman is $30 a month and very popular; Spark and others charge fees, too. People will pay for a good email experience, he said. He just has to make sure he offers one.
Nadhani had told me in our conversation in 2016 that his hope was to "out-cockroach everyone" in the email market. Now, that's Mitchell's plan: He wants to make sure he can keep using Newton forever. He and Kataria have promised that if they ever go out of business, they'll open-source the Newton code so the product can outlive them. But Mitchell said he's pretty sure the business can work. "It's not a giant hole in the ground, but it's not a unicorn," he said. "The goal is to get it to a point where it can just sit, and exist, and run."
Between the massive valuation and the self-driving software, Tesla isn't hard to sell as a tech company. But does that mean that, in 10 years, every car will be tech?
A new media company from the publisher of POLITICO reporting on the people, power and politics of tech.
From disagreements about what "Autopilot" should mean and SolarCity lawsuits to space colonization and Boring Company tunnels, extremely online Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his company stay firmly in the news, giving us all plenty of opportunities to consider whether the company that made electric cars cool counts as tech.
The massive valuation definitely screams tech, as does the company's investment in self-driving software and battery development. But at the end of the day, this might not be enough to convince skeptics that Tesla is anything other than a car company that uses tech. It also raises questions about the role that timeliness plays in calling something tech. In a potential future where EVs are the norm and many run on Tesla's own software — which is well within the realm of possibility — will Tesla lose its claim to a tech pedigree?
It's a tough issue, but our intrepid staff is more than up to the task of fighting about it so you don't have to. Could anything that's been referred to as the next Apple this many times not be tech? If the Model X is tech, how about a Ford Focus? If batteries qualify as tech now, is the Energizer bunny the original Technoking? All these questions and more will be answered (or possibly not)! below.
Anna Kramer: is Tesla tech?
Shakeel Hashim: oh hell yes i was hoping for this one
Shakeel: yes it is and so are all car companies
Megan Rose Dickey: lol u would be hoping for this one
Joe Williams: Tesla is absolutely tech, its cars all run via software that can be updated without the users even knowing.
Megan: yeah, it's def tech
Shakeel: would it be tech if it didn't do that @Joe Williams
Anna: Wow am i the only one who is ambivalent about this
Megan: seems like it
Caitlin Wolper: i'd call it tech simply after seeing the internal display that not only identifies other cars but can tell people and cones, that was wild
Megan: it also tries to scare you when you're walking your dog at night
Anna: Doesn't that mean most car companies are now tech though? Plenty of other cars run on software like that now
Megan: it's like, "bish, come any closer and i'll sound off my alarm"
Karyne Levy: jeez i missed the note that this was starting and i'm already 12 replies behind
Joe: Yes, just maybe not in the traditional sense of what's considered technology. Like, battery technology is technology. It's not SaaS obviously, but it's tech.
Tom Krazit: yeah i can't even imagine the counterargument here
Shakeel: is a Ford Focus tech
Megan: ford wishes
Caitlin: is ford/"new girl" product placement tech
Shakeel: or: does tech stop being tech when it's been around for a certain amount of time
Anna: but it's a car company, it makes cars at the end of the day
Allison Levitsky: is tesla more tech than other car companies are
Karyne: you know what's not tech and is a car company? volkswagen
Shakeel: See I think Volkswagen is a tech company
Tom: totally, that emissions scam they pulled was very much tech
Shakeel: but also @Allison Levitsky yes
Anna: see when does a car company become a tech company? Like they are all doing Tesla-ish things now or trying to
Chris Fong: Tesla isn't. They don't even offer an in-dash CD changer.
Megan: lol wtf
Karyne: the scam was tech, the tech inside of any volkswagen car is garbage
Allison: and is tesla somehow more tech than other EV companies
Joe: I think any company that has an electric vehicle or self-driving car is tech.
Shakeel: self driving definitely tech
Megan: agree w/ jojo
Joe: If we consider semiconductors tech, wouldn't we consider batteries tech?
Karyne: exploding engines is not tech, but i think that tesla is tech
Anna: so all car companies will eventually be tech? Or this will stop being tech at some point
Karyne: is the only thing that makes tesla tech the self-driving stuff and the batteries?
Shakeel: if we are saying that Volkswagen is no longer tech then I think we have to say that one day Tesla will not be tech
Karyne: ooh anna, if everything is tech, then is nothing tech?
Shakeel: Because once upon a time cars were exciting new tech
Karyne: megan, my god
Shakeel: I hope our CMS supports that emoji
Megan: this convo is killing me
Anna: god this is now totally ruining my brain
Karyne: are things tech when people who work there say "we are a tech company building X, not an X company"
Shakeel: no because most of those people are liars
Tom: those are platforms /ducks
Karyne: we are a tech company building: cars, meat, space, dating,
Anna: so should we have a statute of limitations on something being tech? Like eventually you just age out and tech means something new
Karyne: is a Sony Discman tech?
Karyne: (i'm aging myself 😔 )
Zeyi Yang: if batteries are tech then is Duracell tech?
Allison: it stops being tech and it becomes "electronics"
Chris: It's electric and runs on batteries.
Joe: I guess for me I think what is ultimately powering the product? In Tesla's case, it's the tech that's doing that. For WeWork, it's a physical asset that is enhanced by technology.
Shakeel: I like Allison's definition
Karyne: in 10 years then, joe, if every car is running on Tesla-like tech, then every car company will be tech
Chris: Is Tesla electronics?
Becca Evans: does their big valuation help Tesla seem more tech-y than other companies that sell electric cars
Shakeel: yeah it's certain valued at a tech multiple
Karyne: does Elon Musk make it tech?
Shakeel: are flamethrowers tech
Karyne: are boring companies tech?
Shakeel: are short shorts tech
Becca: is that tunnel in vegas tech
Zeyi: am I tech
Karyne: wow what a great place to end.
Joe: Elon, if you're reading this, you're tech in my eyes. Let me go to space with you and we can talk about it all day/night, whatever happens up there.
As President of Alibaba Group, I am often asked, "What is Alibaba doing in the U.S.?"
In fact, most people are not aware we have a business in the U.S. because we are not a U.S. consumer-facing service that people use every day – nor do we want to be. Our consumers – nearly 900 million of them – are located in China.
People are often surprised to learn we have thousands of customers here in America, made up of U.S. brands, retailers, small businesses and even farmers.
Last year, thousands of these U.S. companies sold more than $54 billion worth of their high-quality products directly to Chinese consumers on our e-commerce platforms. These companies include large multinationals like P&G and Estée Lauder, family-owned businesses like BISSELL and Emily's Chocolates, small businesses like Antica Farmacista and Radha Beauty and agriculture-based companies like Sun-Maid and Califia Farms.
How does it work? Think of Alibaba as a massive digital mall. When a U.S. business opens a digital storefront on our platform in China, they gain access to our almost 900 million active Chinese consumers. But we do much more than provide traffic. We provide all the tools to help U.S. businesses build their brands in China to serve local Chinese consumers. This includes fully customizable online storefronts, marketing tools, inventory and management services, as well as translation and logistics.
We also offer innovations like livestream commerce, AR shopping and gamification to help businesses connect with consumers in highly engaging ways. One of our strengths is the deep insights we have into the Chinese consumer, which can be very valuable to U.S. businesses as they tailor and market their products to fit the demands of new Chinese consumers.
Importantly, what makes us different from other e-commerce platforms is that we are a marketplace, not a retailer. This distinction is critical because it means we connect U.S. businesses and their products directly to the Chinese consumer. The business owns the relationships and consumer insights, and has total control over pricing, marketing and merchandising decisions. It also means we are always a partner, and never a competitor to the businesses on our platforms. We will only succeed if the businesses we work with succeed.
These are the important reasons why so many U.S. brands trust us and work with us in the China consumer market. Even direct-to-consumer brands based in the U.S. like Allbirds, Rothy's, Everlane and Senreve partner with us in China. We give them all the advantages of going direct to consumers – control over branding, consumer relationships and all the data and insights – in addition to access to the nearly 900 million consumers on our marketplaces.
According to the
U.S-China Business Council, one million jobs in the U.S. are consistently sustained by helping U.S. businesses sell to China. We are proud to be an important part of that U.S. job creation opportunity.
Until recently, the China consumer opportunity would have been out of reach for most U.S. small businesses. That is why we have invested heavily in our Tmall Global platform, which was specifically designed for businesses without a local presence in China to be able to sell cross-border to the Chinese consumer. Over the past several months, Alibaba has seen a continuing flow of American brands starting to sell to China for the first time. More than 100 U.S. businesses have launched on Tmall Global since January 2021.
Take New Jersey skincare brand
Nuria Beauty as an example. Josh Ghaim founded Nuria Beauty just two years ago before the pandemic hit. Because of his prior experience at Johnson & Johnson, Ghaim was familiar with Alibaba and knew it could be a great solution for Nuria. In just three months, Nuria had a Tmall Global storefront up and running, and was enjoying steady sales growth. Ghaim expects the China market to grow and become his largest market.
This year, more than 50 percent of all retail sales in China are predicted to take place online—the first time this milestone has been reached globally. The digital economy and massive consumer market in China present big opportunities for Alibaba's U.S. customers.
So when people ask me what Alibaba is doing in America, my answer is simple: We give great American brands, retailers, small businesses and farmers direct access to the Chinese consumer opportunity that can power their growth and success for the long term.
Spooked by rising cases of COVID-19, many tech companies delay their office reopening.
Apple grabbed headlines this week when it told employees it would delay its office reopening until October or later. But the iPhone maker wasn't alone: At least two other Silicon Valley companies decided to delay their reopenings last week in response to rising COVID-19 case counts.
Both ServiceNow and Pure Storage opted to push back their September return-to-office dates last week, telling employees they can work remotely until at least the end of the year. Other companies may decide to exercise more caution given the current trends.
"I know a couple companies that have just indefinitely put plans on hold," said Niki Armstrong, who serves as general counsel, corporate secretary and chief compliance officer at Pure Storage. "We really just don't know what the future's going to hold here in the next few months."
Pure is one such company. The nearly $6 billion data storage hardware and software maker initially planned to fully reopen its offices after Labor Day, but decided last week to delay its full reopening indefinitely.
Pure decided to indefinitely delay its full reopening because of concerns about the spread of the highly infectious delta variant of COVID-19. Vaccinated people are far less likely than the unvaccinated to wind up in the hospital with COVID-19, but breakthrough cases do occur. Pure still plans to reopen on a voluntary basis next month, but only to employees who tell the company they're vaccinated.
Employees may also have concerns about bringing the virus home to unvaccinated family members or may be unvaccinated themselves for a medical reason, Armstrong noted.
"It's not 'vaccine and chill.' It's 'vaccine and still continue to be safe,'" Armstrong said. "It's not 100% guaranteed that you're not going to get it, even with the vaccine."
By delaying the full reopening, Pure is allowing employees to continue to live where they want, whether or not that's near the office, until it's clear when the company can safely reopen. Pure wanted to avoid uprooting employees and then changing plans, Armstrong said.
ServiceNow delayed its full reopening for similar reasons. The $114 billion software maker decided last week to delay its September reopening until January or later, spokesperson Caitlin Stewart said.
"We understand the complex realities everyone is facing, including concerns about the COVID-19 delta variant," ServiceNow said in an emailed statement. "This extended period of employee choice will give our people time to transition back to the workplace safely and plan for personal situations."
Similar to Pure, ServiceNow is allowing employees to come into the office in the meantime if they choose. All but three of ServiceNow's 27 U.S. offices are partially open, Stewart said.
Google, Amazon and Microsoft have all indicated September as their full reopening date, though spokespeople for both Facebook and Google told Protocol earlier this week that they were monitoring the changing situation.
And it's not uncommon for companies to look to October or later. Like Apple, Facebook doesn't expect to fully reopen until October. Salesforce, SAP, Twilio and DoorDash are letting employees work remotely until January 2022 or later.
Some are looking even further into the future for their reopenings. Airbnb won't require its employees to come back to the office until September 2022, CEO Brian Chesky revealed on the company's May 13 earnings call, telling investors that the company wants to "model the 'live anywhere' lifestyle" and would "allow a lot of flexibility."
Local government officials in the Bay Area have been urging people to wear masks in public, indoor places for the last week.
A similar recommendation in Los Angeles was quickly followed by an indoor mask mandate, which went into effect last weekend in L.A.'s public, indoor spaces, including offices.
It's possible that the Bay Area's mask recommendation could turn into a mandate if the case counts don't get under control, said Rachel Conn, a San Francisco-based partner in the labor and employment group at the law firm Nixon Peabody.
"Could I see the Bay Area fall in line and do something similar to L.A. in the future? I certainly could," Conn said. "We were, of course, the first to have a lockdown in the country."
A potential mask mandate in offices could throw a wrench in companies' reopening plans. Already, Google and Intel have begun urging even vaccinated employees to wear masks in the office again, given that both companies are allowing unvaccinated employees to come to work.
"A lot of times employers are getting feedback from their employees," Conn said. "If employers are seeing a rise in concerns with their employees about the delta variant, or data they're seeing, they should consider all of that."
Officials in San Francisco, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties also recommended yesterday that given the rising case counts, employers should consider imposing vaccine mandates at the workplace. In a radio interview on WNYC today, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called on employers to require vaccinations for workers.
Only a handful of large tech companies are currently barring unvaccinated employees from the office, including Adobe, Twitter, Asana and Twilio. Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon are among the companies that aren't imposing such mandates.
A new survey found that working parents at the VP level are more likely to say they've faced discrimination at work than their lower-level counterparts.
Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.
But a new survey, shared exclusively with Protocol, finds that among parents who kept their jobs through the pandemic, people who hold more senior positions are actually more likely to say they faced discrimination at work than their lower-level colleagues.
The survey, conducted by Qualtrics and the online talent marketplace The Boardlist in June, asked 1,225 people over the age of 18 about their work experiences during the pandemic. Overall, 45% of working parents said they'd been discriminated against at work because of their family responsibilities. But that figure was even higher for parents in managerial and VP positions, 54% of whom said they'd experienced discrimination for their familial duties. Only 38% of lower-level employees said the same.
"It's very clear at leadership levels, as you ascend, there's a feeling of backlash, or at a minimum, prejudice for having these responsibilities," said Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder and chair of The Boardlist, which helps companies find potential board members who are women and people of color. The survey results, she said, suggest that while it's obvious working parents in general are looking for more flexibility and support, that doesn't become any less true as they climb the corporate ladder.
Of the working parents who said they'd been discriminated against, 43% said they'd received criticism inside the company and 33% said they'd been passed over for a promotion. Others reported having their leadership responsibilities taken away and being passed over for important projects.
The survey also confirmed what has been a long-running theme in research about parenthood during the pandemic: It found that 75% of working moms said they handled the bulk of child care, while just 62% of working men said the same. Some 58% of moms reported having exclusive responsibility for leading their kids' remote learning, compared to 34% of dads.
This imbalance no doubt contributed to the mass exodus of women from the workforce during the height of lockdown restrictions in the U.S. As the country opens back up and administers more vaccines, there are some signs that trend is receding, with women taking more than 50% of new jobs in May. And yet, women's overall labor force participation in June 2021 remained at a 30-year low.
For Cassidy, who has served on the boards of companies like Ericsson, Tripadvisor and Urban Outfitters, all of this amounts to a reminder that as companies work to bring more women — and particularly parents — into the board room and senior positions in their companies, they have to develop a supportive culture to go along with it. "I think it's very important that boards turn their attention to issues of talent, culture and flexibility, which historically has not been part of the board room," she said.
If it succeeds, the gambit could help support Google Cloud's lofty ambitions in the manufacturing sector.
Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.
Alphabet launched a new division Friday called Intrinsic, which will focus on building software for industrial robots, per a blog post. The move plunges the tech giant deeper into a sector that's in the midst of a major wave of digitization.
The goal of Intrinsic is to "give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they're completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications," CEO Wendy Tan-White wrote in the post.
That's a laudable mission, but one that will require immense engineering work in order to build a product that can ultimately be deployed relatively easily at an enterprise-grade level, a challenge Tan-White openly admitted lay ahead.
"None of this is realistic or affordable to automate today," she wrote. "This all hints at the potential for Intrinsic's software to radically reduce the time, cost, and complexity required to use industrial robots."
Intrinsic has some heavy hitters on its side to help achieve that goal, including Chief Technology Officer Torsten Kroeger and Martin Haegele, a former winner of the Engelberger Award, which is essentially the Nobel Prize for robotics.
While it's possible to train robots to handle extremely repetitive tasks, those processes begin to break down as those tasks become more complicated. Other tech giants like Nvidia are also trying to improve the capabilities of industrial robots: The chip maker has an AI lab in Seattle that is testing out several different types of robotic systems.
For Alphabet, the software could help propel other parts of the business. Manufacturing has emerged as a key focus for Google Cloud, which recently released its first industry-specific tool: an AI-based visual inspection tool. It also hired sector veterans like former SAP executive Hans Thalbauer and Accenture's Suchitra Bose to help forge deeper partnerships with other software providers and build up its own product suite.
But other cloud vendors, namely Microsoft, also sense the opportunity in further digitizing an industry that has already embraced advanced tech like artificial intelligence. For Microsoft and Google, the industrial segment is attractive because many of the promised innovations of the future — like digital twins and generative design — are going to require huge amounts of data, which means they'll need lots of expensive computing and storage services.
One of Google's biggest differentiators in the market is its AI. The company is world-renowned for the technology; just look at Alphabet's announcement earlier this week that DeepMind would release a huge database of 3D protein structures.
If Intrinsic succeeds, it could give Google Cloud, which currently lags behind AWS and Microsoft in the overall cloud infrastructure sector, a huge presence in a critical market.