why I use gmail (or, the list of daily worries of a self-hoster)

In class Thursday, during a discussion of privacy and security, Prof. Moglen asked me how I do email; I told him gmail. I was going to write a long post explaining why (which will probably form part of an essay in the near future) but Jesse nails a fair number of them in one sentence:

Now, I no longer have to think about keeping spam stuff up to date, no longer have to worry about that next security vuln …, no longer have to worry about having a decent interface for getting mail from mobile devices, etc…

I’d add no longer have to worry about storage space (at least not for future emails); not have to worry about data backup; not have to worry about hardware failure and reliability; not have to worry that I can’t leave (since I mostly ‘hide’ @gmail behind @tieguy.org).

Jesse and I are not alone in this- gmail is the most popular user-agent at gmane.org, and an lkml admin tells me that over half of current lkml subscribers are @gmail.com. (This bleg was unsuccessful in getting Debian data, but I imagine their numbers are similar.)

Prof. Moglen is right to worry about privacy and security, but for the vast, vast majority of us those are very irregular problems. If they have non-trivial impact, that impact is once or twice in a lifetime. The problems I’ve listed here are all daily problems with self-hosted email. (You can take steps to reduce some of the worry, but you still have to use your precious time to recover when things go wrong, and you have to do it on the hardware or network’s schedule, not yours.) Solving daily problems at the expense of once-in-a-lifetime problems is a tradeoff most people will happily make. So gmail and the like are winning, and will win for the foreseeable future, even amongst those like Jesse who are skilled in the fine arts of software maintenance.

This is principled software’s biggest challenge- not how to stay relevant in the face of google’s vast server farms (which are important but not insurmountable for many classes of service), but how to stay relevant in the face of how convenient centrally-hosted web software is for both users and developers.

[It doesn’t hurt that gmail is very nice software. The keyboard nav is very good, search is powerful, conversation view is the first real innovation in email in ages, archiving of IMs as emails is so blindingly obvious that I’m still shocked no other mail/IM pairs that I know of do it, and the intense scriptability (which is now officially supported) means I have more plugins for this than I used to have for evo. None of these were the things that pulled me away from evo, though- it was all about not having to have the responsibility of running my own server.]