Skiff has spent the past two years developing a privacy-focused, collaborative document editing platform that you could most succinctly describe as “Encrypted Google Docs.” Now it’s coming for Gmail. The company is launching an email service called Skiff Mail that aims to be, well, Gmail encrypted — and ultimately so much more than that.
Ultimately, Skiff co-founder and CEO Andrew Milich says Skiff wants to create a complete workspace, something as big and wide as Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace. But the only way to do this is to solve the problem of email, which is, in many ways, the heart of both platforms. “It’s the most private body of our lives, you know?” said Militch. In an effort to protect people’s most important information — which includes doctors’ notes, confirmation numbers, work emails, family chats and everything in between — he says the emails appeared to be a ” next logical and critical step”.
Email is also a potential growth hack for Skiff. “It’s really, really hard to leave a service you’re using today when your main identity,” says Milich, “your main communication layer, how you actually live on the internet, is outside of that.” In other words, for every user going to Skiff Mail instead of Gmail, that’s another person for whom Skiff’s other products are just a click away. Right now, Skiff is free for personal use and earns money through business subscriptions. Milich didn’t say what Skiff’s plans are for email, but said advanced features will likely pay off later.
Rather than reinventing the wheel and proposing New Hey Level Paradigm To learn how email works, Skiff starts out pretty simple. The current app, which works on web, Android, and iOS, looks like 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 messaging app – a pretty basic app. Currently, custom domains are not supported. You can’t check your Gmail in Skiff, and there aren’t even a lot of automation or organization tools. Milich explains that the simplicity is mostly down to design: “We didn’t go overboard saying, ‘We’re going to reinvent email with a new set of inboxes, a new set of filtering rules, a new Rather, the goal was to make all the important things – text editing, searching, attachment management – work just fine.
That’s not to say there are no ambitions for Skiff Mail. It’s just that Milich’s whole theory is that this “privacy-first app” strategy only works if people actually like using the apps. So many apps and services focused on privacy and security are practically screaming their values at you. Apps are harder to use, force you to manage more systems or click through a thousand warning messages, or just look like they were made by cryptographers rather than designers. (Because usually they were!) A Skiff adviser told me that many of these products sounded more like advocacy campaigns than competing products. Skiff tries to live by 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 talking long enough, though, and he’ll start to veer into much funkier 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 for bringing Skiff Mail to the Web3 community. He imagines users with .ETH domain names using those addresses for fully encrypted and decentralized messaging, for example, or perhaps enabling wallet-to-wallet communication via MetaMask integration. “Encryption and public/private keys are so much about what identity means at Skiff,” says Milich, “and that’s also what we see identity becoming in web3.”
There’s growing evidence that “Gmail but private” is a compelling offer for many. Proton, the maker of ProtonMail, said last year that it had more than 50 million users, while platforms like Fastmail and Librem Mail also continue to grow. Gmail remains the market giant, in fact the only company that really matters in the email space, but those looking for something different have more choice than ever.
Yet even if Skiff could figure out how to create the largest and most private email system ever, getting people to switch email providers is a near impossible task. The inertia is huge. Switching email accounts is like changing your phone number or credit card, the kind of thing you only do when absolutely necessary. That’s why most companies don’t even try to tackle Gmail. Even the majority of email apps out there are mostly front-end apps on top of Gmail, not complete system overhauls. Milich says Skiff has some ideas on how to make the transition easier, but acknowledged it’s a huge hurdle.
One of the tricky things about the idea of ”private email” is that, by design, no one can actually control email. It would be quite easy for Skiff to create an encrypted email platform if it was only Skiff users sending emails to other Skiff users, but… that’s not how email works. Instead, the team tried to create a tool that stretches up and down 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 of the ecosystem, 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 thinks 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.