Skiff has spent the last two years developing a privacy-focused collaborative document editing platform that I might more succinctly describe as “Encrypted Google Docs.” Now, it comes to Gmail. The company is launching an email service called Skiff Mail that aims to be, well, encrypted Gmail, and eventually much more than that.
Ultimately, Skiff co-founder and CEO Andrew Milich says Skiff wants to build a complete workspace, something as broad as Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace. But the only way to do that is to resolve email, which is, in many ways, the core of both platforms. “It’s the most private corpus of our lives, you know?” Milich says. In an effort to keep people’s most important information secure, including medical notes, confirmation numbers, work emails, family chats and everything in between, he says email felt like a “logical next step and critical”.
Email is also a potential growth hack for Skiff. “It’s very, very difficult to leave a service you’re using today when your main identity,” Milich says, “your main layer of communication, the way you actually live on the Internet, is outside of that.” In other words, for every user who goes to Skiff Mail instead of Gmail, that’s someone else for whom Skiff’s other products are just a click away. At this time, Skiff is free for personal use and earns through commercial subscriptions; Milich wouldn’t say what Skiff’s plans are for email, but said advanced features will likely be paid for in the future.
Instead of reinventing the wheel and creating a new Hey-level paradigm for how email works, Skiff is starting out pretty simply. The app right now, which works on the web, Android, and iOS, looks similar to Gmail minus all the color and UI. It’s almost all text, with folders on the left and a reading view for your current message on the right. In other words, it’s a pretty basic email app. At this time, there is no support for custom domains. You can’t check your Gmail in Skiff, and there aren’t even many automation or organization tools. Milich says the simplicity is mostly due to design: “We weren’t very ambitious and said, ‘We’re going to reinvent email with a new set of inboxes, a new set of filter rules, a new set of templates.’ Instead, the goal was to make all the important stuff — text editing, searching, managing attachments — work really well.
That’s not to say Skiff Mail doesn’t have ambitions. It’s just that Milich’s whole theory is that this “privacy app first” strategy only works if people actually like using the apps. So many apps and services focused on privacy and security practically scream their values at you. The apps are harder to use, force you to manage more systems or click through thousands of warning messages, or simply appear to have been created by cryptographers rather than designers. (Because they usually were!) A Skiff consultant told me that many of these products look more like promotional campaigns than competitive products. Skiff is trying to live up to all of those same values: the company often publishes its research and much of its code is open source, but in a much more user-friendly package.
Get Milich to talk long enough, though, and he’ll start to veer into much more fun territory. One of Skiff’s recent projects has been to integrate its document platform with the IPFS protocol, a decentralized network layer that users can now choose to use to store their data. Milich also has ideas on how to bring Skiff Mail to the Web3 community. He envisions users with .ETH domain names using those addresses for fully encrypted, decentralized messaging, for example, or perhaps enabling wallet-to-wallet communication via MetaMask integration. “Encryption and public key/private keys have a lot to do with what identity means in Skiff,” says Milich, “and it’s also what we’re seeing identity become in web3.”
There is growing evidence that “Gmail but private” is a compelling offer for many. Proton, the maker of ProtonMail, said last year that it has more than 50 million users, while platforms like Fastmail and Librem Mail also continue to grow. Gmail remains the giant of the market, effectively the only company that really matters in email, but those looking for something different have more options than ever.
Still, even if Skiff could figure out how to build the best, most private email system ever conceived, getting people to switch email providers is a near-impossible task. The inertia is huge. Changing your email account is like changing your phone or credit card number, the kind of thing you only do when you absolutely have to. That’s why most companies don’t even try to take on Gmail. Even most email apps out there are mostly front-ends to Gmail, not complete rethinks of the system. Milich says Skiff has some ideas about how to ease the transition, but acknowledged it’s a big hurdle.
One of the tricky aspects of the “private email” idea is that, by design, no one can control email. It would be easy enough for Skiff to create an encrypted email platform if only Skiff users sent email to other Skiff users, but… that’s not how email works. Instead, the team has tried to build a tool that broadens and narrows the security spectrum. When Skiff users send emails to other Skiff users, everything is encrypted by default and easy for senders to revoke or verify, but when you send emails outside the ecosystem, the SMTP protocols still work.
Milich hopes that as more providers embrace privacy, they will create tools to match and, by extension, improve the entire ecosystem. But he believes that, even for now, if the least Skiff can do is say “we’ll keep your most important communication safe, even from us,” that counts for something.