Where are the good email apps?

15/1/2024

Am I too comfortable using Apple Mail? After all, it’s almost a decade using it daily. After going through several other email apps this weekend, I got the impression that there is no other good email app on the market.

I had this revelation while setting up Fedora 39 on one of these “mini PCs”. I wasn’t looking for something fancy, certainly nothing that involves “AI” or that processes my emails on other people’s servers. (And, definitely, not one that costs me US$ 30/month, lol.) All I’m asking is an app with a good UX and sane defaults and keyboard shortcuts compatible with IMAP and SMTP. Is that too much to ask?

Before going through Linux, I started the pre-installed Windows 11 to take a look at the “new” Outlook, Microsoft’s surrender to the elephant in the room, the webmail.

If you use Windows and have not yet had the misfortune to come across the new Outlook, it’s just a wrapper for web Outlook. Good for Microsoft, for its 766 partners who get data from users, and that’s it. No, it’s not good for you or me.

Windows trashed, I installed the default Fedora, with Gnome DE, and started my via crucis on Linux email apps. First stop: the good and old Thunderbird.

Even with the visual redesign in progress, Thunderbird still feels… weird. There are many buttons all around, keyboard shortcuts different from the OS, and it’s visually so out of place. Several of these problems are common to Firefox, but for reasons I can’t explain Firefox doesn’t give me that feeling. Could I get used to it? Yes, yet a little grudgingly. It works. Let’s test other apps before sticking to this one.

The next on the list was Evolution, a kind of Gnome’s equivalent to Thunderbird: it handles email, calendar, task lists, notes. (Only messages via Matrix were missing, something that Thunderbird got not long ago.) With a little patience you can remove the excesses of buttons and bars and make Evolution more pleasant, or less ugly. Not at an ideal level, because there’s a lot going on at the same time, but ok, it’s not that bad at all.

The next app, Geary, is what looks most like Apple Mail. Simple, focused on email, good keyboard shortcuts (although lacking a few), it’s more or less what you can expect of a modern email app.

The problem is that Geary suffers from some unjustifiable issues at this point. The worst of them is the fixed columns.

For reasons that perhaps not even God explains, it’s not possible to resize its main columns. To make matters worse, the middle column is almost the same width as the message’s, even on big displays.

This has been the situation since April 2021. Geary’s history is rough, with some periods of no maintenance. This issue, however, is a regression. It wasn’t like that and it could never have been like that.

I got to the extreme of testing Claws before ending my spin by email apps. I like it and I only write emails in plain text, so… why not? Maybe I would adapt with dedication and patience to improve its appearance (the ugliest of all, by far) and messing with plugins and so on, but I have no time nor willing to do that.

Have most people migrated to webmail on computers, apps only on phones? For those who use an email app on their computers: which one? Did I forget to test any? I’m all ears.

Substack's Nazi newsletters

5/1/2024

In November 2023, The Atlantic denounced the existence of explicitly Nazi newsletters on Substack, some of them offering paid subscriptions.

This means that Substack hosts, promotes and makes money from Nazi newsletters.

On December 21, the three co-founders of Substack posted a note saying they do not intend to moderate such newsletters, except when they incite violence.

For Chris Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi, banning, limiting revenue sources or even not promoting Nazi newsletters would be the same as censoring them, which, in their view, would only make the problem worse.

“We believe that supporting individual rights and civil liberties while subjecting ideas to open discourse is the best way to strip bad ideas of their power,” they wrote.

For this twisted logic, the six million Jews murdered by Nazis in the Holocaust lacked persuasion.

***

Substack is covered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CTA), the American 1996 law that exempts online platforms from liability for what their users publish.

Contrary to other countries, in the United States, where Substack is based, Nazi manifestations aren’t a felony.

Meta, TikTok, the old Twitter, and other online platforms at least try (or pretend) to moderate illicit or questionable content on their own for two reasons: public perception and money.

Most people and governments around the world do not like to share space with declared Nazis, racists and other bad guys. On the other hand, companies do not want to have their ads served next to reprehensible content, a scenario that puts their brands and revenue at risk.

By its business model, Substack only needs to worry about the first group — or not even that, as you can see.

The startup does not depend on advertising, that is, on other companies, to make money. It only does when people subscribed to newsletters hosted there become paying subscribers. For intermediation, it grabs 10% of the gross revenue.

Still, Substack’s content guidelines forbids incitement to violence.

“Offending behavior includes credible threats of physical harm to people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability or medical condition,” it reads.

For the co-founders of Substack, however, violence is not a value inherent in Nazi ideology, and this is less dangerous than pornography, another type of content forbidden by the guidelines and that, unlike Nazism, is promptly banned.

In the past, Substack used the argument that it offers infrastructure not to moderate content. To use the example of Casey Newton, a technology journalist and owner of one of Substack’s most prominent newsletters, the startup would be what Microsoft is in relation to Word: no one blames it or demands measures from Microsoft when someone writes a Nazi manifesto in Word.

Today, this argument is not sustainable. The moment Substack starts promoting newsletters and launches a Twitter clone with a feed based on a recommendation algorithm, the service changes. It’s no longer infrastructure, it’s a platform. And with that, it attracts to itself the need to moderate content.

***

It’s no surprise that some people who bet on Substack are uncomfortable with the situation. That it’s not new, it’s worth remembering. In April 2023, Chris Best, co-founder and CEO of Substack, said in a podcast that the service accepts racist newsletters.

More than 240 people who use Substack, many of them renowned, signed an open letter to the founders of Substack asking them to reconsider their position in relation to Nazi newsletters.

Casey Newton has met with the startup management and has already warned that if nothing changes, he will leave Substack.

There are other newsletter services, that is, there is nothing preventing someone from leaving Substack. For those who are established and already have many subscribers, it’s a valid path. For the rest of us, it’s complicated.

If your newsletter hosted on Substack is free of charge, as in if you don’t offer paid subscriptions, the service is also free for your and without limitations.

No competitor can offer such conditions because they are unsustainable. They only work there because of venture capital infusions and a crowdfunding ran in early 2023. Until when, no one knows. I suspect that, when only they are left using the Substack, the few Nazis writes that the co-founders are protecting now will not be able to pay the bill.

Simple Mobile Tools was sold to a shady app company

4/12/2023

Simple Mobile Tools (SMT), a suite of small, focused, pro-privacy, and open source Android apps, was a breeze for people looking for simple apps that do one job well without asking weird phone permissions or showing intrusive ads.

However, without prior notice, SMT was sold to ZipoApps. On its website, the company says they “acquire the best apps and take them to the next level”, which is only true if by “next level” they mean “charge expensive subscriptions for no reason”.

Contributors are upset with Tibor Kaputa, founder of SMT, and question whether the project license, GPLv3, even allows a sale without the consent of everyone who contributed to the code ever. There was even talk of bring the issue to the Justice in order to stop the deal.

On GitHub, a long conversation is unfolding, where Tibor confirmed the sale and kind of justified it:

Right, I know that it is a really controversial step that upset many users, sadly the quality of the whole Android ecosystem is dropping really quickly recently and I wanted to avoid slow death. Thanks a lot for the support that me and the apps received over the years, it means a lot to me :)

The craziest thing about this story is that on August, the SMT blog was pushing critical posts to apps that sell user data. A year ago, Timor launched SMT’s own phone (!) with the apps pre-installed.

ZipoApps explains, on its website, that selling an app to them “takes three easy steps” and that “most of our deals are closed within 14 days”.

One of the project contributors, Naveen Singh, forked SMT into a project called FossifyX, and promised to keep SMT going and adherent to its principles. Great for those who are involved, but this doesn’t solve the issue for those who will soon come across popups asking for double-digit weekly subscriptions and will be tracked by shady ad companies ion apps that, so far, were paradigms of pro-privacy best practices.

Every now and then, I have the feeling that these behind the scenes of non-central apps in our lives are almost a curiosity, almost a hobby of mine and a few people who gather in places like Hacker News. The last few days, with this Simple Mobile Tools story, Evernote’s free plan debacle, and Castro’s four-day outage and rumors of a soon to be made shutdown, have shown that it’s not quite like that… right?

Apple suppliers, the “carbon neutral” Apple Watch, and carbon credits

24/11/2023

Very curious, this Greenpeace report detailing the decarbonization efforts of 11 of the largest suppliers of technology companies.

The main findings:

The full report can be read here (PDF).

Apple's Carbon Neutral logo, edited to show some leaves falling and rotting.

Apple has business with all of 11 suppliers analyzed by Greenpeace.

In October, Apple drew attention by announcing its first “carbon neutral” product, a specific model of Apple Watch combined with a few bands.

The claim was contested by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a non-profit institution in China that, a year earlier, had received praise from Apple. The IPE accused the company of lacking transparency about the supply chain of its products.

That wasn’t the only problem with Apple’s and other polluting companies claims of being or becoming carbon neutral.

Unfortunately, it’s not like Apple has figured out a way to make its smartwatch suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. Neutrality was achieved, as expected, with the purchase of carbon credits — the equivalent of 7–12 kg per watch, according to the Financial Times.

These credits, according to Apple itself, are from projects in Latin America and use “international standards” of certification of the so-called voluntary (or unregulated) market, including those of Verra, which an investigation by The Guardian found that ~90% of the credits did not represent any actual reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases.

The operation of carbon credits in the voluntary market is bizarre. Without regulation (and without surprise), incentives turn to maximizing profit — once again, the tail of capitalism shakes the dog, or the environment.

The history of the Lake Kariba forest in Zimbabwe, told in the New Yorker, is a good example of these erratic incentives in the carbon credit market in full force. (If you find the article too long, Matt Levine made a good and fun summary in his column.)

Brazil represents another chronic problem of the voluntary market, with the allotment of public land by the so-called “carbon cowboys” in the Amazon, as shown by Sumaúma.

Carbon credits are sold as the solution to the paradox of sustaining economic growth without worsening the climate catastrophe. If it seems too good to be true, it’s because it’s not.

Ephemeral as the default in digital

24/11/2023

Those who were over 30 years old in 2013 have probably never used or even understand Snapchat.

Today, however, we all feel the influence of the ephemeral messaging app. Stories, Snapchat’s legacy to humanity, reject a maxim of the commercial internet: that all data must be kept forever.

The ephemeral in digital is an unintuitive concept. With storage prices falling and the promises of new technologies capable of extracting insights from large volumes of data — big data, machine learning, LLMs! —, turning your back on data becomes an almost subversive attitude.

Maybe it’s. If it’s… so what? It’s also liberating. And it can be economical. There are advantages to not being a digital hoarder.

It took a while for other companies and apps to embrace the ephemerality as the standard, that concept brought by Snapchat.

In the main messaging apps outside the US — WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram — you can set a default duration for messages in a conversation. Put another way, the default is that messages are temporary, that they automatically disappear after a few days, weeks or months.

In the field of privacy, the two largest digital advertising companies, Google and Meta, instrumentalized the ephemeral to placate criticism of their business model of aggressive data collection to target ads.

It’s been a while that it’s possible to turn off or set an automatic deletion period for some types of data that both companies collect, store and use to show us ads.

I always suspect the intentions of Google and Meta. It’s likely that that feature has only been released because old data is no longer valuable in their modern digital advertising systems. Still, it’s a good change!

I propose we go further.

In 2004, Google launched Gmail with a challenge: that no one would ever need to delete an email due to lack of storage.

When I open my email settings (which is not Gmail), I see ~100k messages sitting there. It’s a lot, and much of it, I’m sure, dispensable.

What if the email was ephemeral by default? If archived messages were automatically deleted after… say, a year?

The original promise of Gmail was broken. Coincidence or not, in 2019 many users began to hit the 15 GB ceiling that Google gives to free accounts. From there, just paying a monthly fee would enable someone to continue ignoring the email delete button.

Self-deleting emails would save us from this hassle, keeping the storage occupied by messages under control.

That goes for everything. Subscriptions to cloud storage services — Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive, Dropbox — are, for many, almost mandatory at this point. Do we need so much space for so many files that we will never open again?

What I propose is not an absolute change, but a new default procedure. Of course, there are files that need to be preserved, whether for affective, historical, professional or legal reasons.

But these files, which need to be preserved, are exceptions. Or they should be. Instead of saving everything, the new default would be to delete everything except what matters.

App defaults, end of 2023

7/11/2023

Everyone (it seems) is posting their app defaults lists, so I thought to join the party as well.

There are a lot of Apple apps and services, a side effect of using macOS and iOS as main OSs. I hope to improve on that someday.

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