Fastmail’s 2018 in Review

Fastmail’s CEO discusses our work to ensure customer privacy, expand capacity, and lead positive shifts in internet protocols.

It’s the last month of the year, and we want to let you in on what we have accomplished and learned in 2018.

In this letter from Fastmail’s CEO, Bron Gondwana, read how we are expanding capacity, working to ensure customer privacy, and leading positive shifts in internet protocols so that we can provide the best technology and deliverability for you.

One global team

Wow, what a year of growth! In Melbourne, we moved into a bigger office last year, and our Philadelphia team has grown large enough to move into its own space as well, after years in a co-working space. Both offices are very centrally located in their cities.

The highlight of the year for customers has been the integration of our support teams. At the start of 2018, the product support teams were separate for Fastmail and our other products, Pobox, Listbox, and Topicbox. This year, we’ve cross-trained our support agents into a single global team, handing over work through Australia, India and the United States, so there’s someone awake who knows the product you’re using.

On the operations side, integration is proceeding more slowly, but we’re already waking people less frequently for minor issues, which makes for a happier workforce and more resilient service. Our CTO, Rik, has focused on cross training our development and operations staff as well, so there’s no single point of dependency in either servers or people. We’ve invested heavily in both new servers for our Seattle datacentre and additional staff this year with an eye to the future.

And Helen, our COO who is normally based in Philadelphia, spent nine months in Australia with her family to increase cross-office cooperation, building out the design and management capability in both offices throughout the year.

Expert time for expert tasks

A focus for the past year has been identifying places where we would benefit from using external experts rather than building in-house capacity, letting us concentrate on our strengths.

Some beta testers are already using trial versions of our mobile apps — built in partnership with our friends at Itty Bitty Apps. We’ll be rolling out the new apps to all users soon, and continuing to work with Itty Bitty to build new features into our mobile experience.

A major project for the first half of the year was GDPR compliance. Our Chief of Staff, Nicola, managed the project in-house, and we relied on plenty of external expertise. James Keppel from Catalyst Logic advised us on best practices for policy and compliance documentation to explain how we were already protecting our customers’ privacy, and has been acting as an external Data Protection Officer. We also appointed two internal Privacy officers to assess future changes for privacy impact, one in each of our offices. We contracted a separate law firm for the GDPR project, with experts in both Australian and European privacy, to ensure that our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service are compatible with the latest privacy laws throughout the world.

Users of our Listbox product will have already heard that we’re sunsetting the Listbox platform, and moving users across to our much more powerful collaboration product — Topicbox. Users of Listbox who are making purely outbound distribution lists are being assisted to find a product which is a better match, as we focus our entire product range on the key purpose of connecting humans with other humans.

More timely blogging

In 2014, we started an Advent blog series on a whim, when we wanted to blog about our approach to security and decided to flesh it out with some other interesting stories. We repeated this in 2015, 2016 and 2017. We realised that we were saving up all our interesting stories until the end of the year — a time when everyone is busy (both those writing the posts and our audience). Our posts were not as relevant as if we’d written them immediately when we thought of them.

So we will return to posting more during the year rather than saving things up for the end!

I will maintain one tradition — posting about our plans for the coming year in December — and I have plenty more to say about the JMAP standardisation progress as well, so expect a higher posting frequency than the rest of the year! Just not one per day.

Leading change, and adapting to a changing world

One of our key internal focus points for the past year, and probably for every year into the future, is “adapt to a changing world”. This is both changes in technology, and a changing landscape in other ways. The GDPR work was certainly a changing world, in the legislative and compliance sense! We are members of Electronic Frontiers Australia, and we have made submissions to the Australian government where proposed legislation affects our customers and us.

The ARC specification is an attempt to improve the deliverability of authenticated email via indirect mail flows. This is a bit of a mouthful — but it means your email is more likely to be delivered reliably through our products — whether through mailing lists, group mail products like Topicbox, or email forwarding like Pobox. We are key players in the testing and adoption of the ARC specification and have released our work as open source.

The other major “changing world” project in a technical sense has been completing the work of the JMAP specifications at the IETF standards organisation. JMAP is an email-client protocol which grew out of our internal protocols built for our web interface over the past eight years, and will hopefully soon be an internet standard. All development has been entirely in the open — we believe in open standards and are investing heavily in supporting and leading them. Our developers are major contributors to the Cyrus IMAP server project, and all our work there is released to the community, fully open source. Cyrus is the reference implementation of JMAP on the server, and the workhorse powering our products.

JMAP means that email clients can be made more easily, be more efficient with battery life, and provide better notifications and features. It’s a protocol for now and for the future. This year we fully rebuilt our web interface and backend on top of JMAP. This mammoth effort has meant we have shipped far fewer features than we usually would in a year, but we’ve built a really solid base for future improvements which will benefit all our users in the long run.

This year, standards support reached the point that we could provide all user websites over secure connections. We were pleased with this one, and we’re now looking askance at the few remaining protocols (like FTP) which still provide an unencrypted option!

A key part of our values is being a good custodian of your data by implementing meaningful, effective security measures, even if that’s sometimes caused trouble! We were very early with opportunistic TLS in 2009 — now supported by most of the world. In 2012 we put together one of our most popular help pages, explaining SSL, TLS, and STARTTLS, and at the same time started enforcing secure connections for everyone — via web and soon afterward other protocols. It’s all part of our pragmatic approach to meaningful security measures. Anyway, I won’t rabbit on all day — there are heaps more articles about what we do in the blog archives if you’re interested.

Fastmail are proud to be a leading force for open standards and interoperability in the email world. We’re thrilled that our work this year is concluding with both our Topicbox and FastMail products running on top of an open, published protocol which is nearing standarisation. Our products are not just powerful and usable in their own right, but becoming great platforms to build on. We believe our customers stay with us because of the quality of our service, not because we lock them in — your data portability is important to us, and your continuing support allows us to keep making the products you love.

Thanks for reading, and thanks as always for using Fastmail!



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