Oh Gosh, Trying to Find a New Email Provider in 2020

In the year 2020, I decided to move out of my GSuite account (née Google Apps for Business), which allowed me to use Gmail for my personal domain, and that I have used for the past ten years or so. It’s not that I have a problem with Gmail (I worked nearly seven years for Google now, why would it be a problem?) or that I think the service is not up to scratch (as this experience is proving me, I’d argue that it’s still the best service you can rely upon for small and medium businesses — which is the area I focused on when I ran my own company). It’s just that I’m not a business and the features that GSuite provides over the free Gmail no longer make up for the services I’m missing.

But I still wanted to be able to use my own domain for my mail, rather than going back to the standard Gmail domain. So I decided to look around, and migrate my mail to another paid, reliable, and possibly better solution. Alas, the results after a week of looking and playing around are not particularly impressive to me.

First of all I discarded, without even looking at it, the option of self-hosting my mail. I don’t have the time, nor the experience, nor the will to have to deal with my own email hosting. It’s a landmine of issues and risks and I don’t intend to accept them. So if you’re about to suggest this, feel free to not comment. I’m not going to entertain those suggestions anyway.

I ended up looking at what people have been suggesting on Twitter a few times and evaluated two options: ProtonMail and FastMail. I ended up finding both lacking. And I think I’m a bit more upset with the former than the latter, for reasons I’ll get to in this (much longer than usual) blog post.

My requirements for a replacement solution were to have a reliable webmail interface, with desktop notifications. A working Android app. And security at login. I was not particularly interested in ProtonMail’s encrypt-and-sign everything approach, but I could live with that. But I wanted something that wouldn’t risk letting everyone in with just a password, so 2FA was a must for me. I was also hoping to find something that would make it easy to deal with git send-email, but I ended up accepting right away that nothing would be anywhere close to the solution that we found with Gmail and GSuite (more on that later.)

Bad 2FA Options For All

So I started by looking at the 2nd Factor Authentication options for the two providers. Google being the earliest adopter of the U2F standard means of course that this is what I’ve been using, and would love to keep using once I replace it. But of the two providers I was considering, only FastMail stated explicitly it supported U2F. I was told that ProtonMail expects to add support for it this year, but I couldn’t even tell that from their website.

So I tried first FastMail, which has a 30 days free trial. To set up the U2F device, you need to provide a phone number as a recovery option — which gets used for SMS OTP. I don’t like SMS OTP because it’s not really secure (in some countries taking over a phone number is easier than taking over an email address), and because it’s not reliable the moment you don’t have mobile network services. It’s easy to mistake the “no access to mobile network” with “no access to Internet” and say that it doesn’t really matter, but there are plenty of places where I would be able to reach the Internet and not receive SMS: planes, tube platforms, the office when I arrived in London, …

But surely U2F is enough, why am I even bothering complaining about SMS OTP, given that you can disable it once the U2F security key is added? Well, turns out that when I tried to login on the Android app, I was just sent an SMS with the OTP to log myself in. Indeed, after I removed the phone number backup option, the Android app threw me a lovely error of «U2F is your only two-step verification method, but this is not supported here.» On Android, which can act as an U2F token.

As I found out afterwards, you can add a TOTP app as well, which solves the issue of logging in on Android without mobile network service, but by that point I had already started looking at ProtonMail, because it was not the best first impression to start with.

ProtonMail and the Bridge of Destiny

ProtonMail does not provide standard IMAP/SMTP access, because encryption (that’s the best reason I can get from the documentation, I’m not sure at all what this was all about, but honestly, that’s as far as I care to look into it). If you want to use a “normal” mail agent like Thunderbird, you need to use a software, accessible to paying customers only, that acts as “bridge”. As far as I can tell after using it, it appears to be mostly a way to handle the authentication rather than the encryption per se. Indeed, you log into the Bridge software with username, password and OTP, and then it provides localhost-only endpoints for IMAP4 and SMTP, with a generated local password. Neat.

Except it’s only available in Beta for Linux, so instead I ended up running it on Windows at first.

This is an interesting approach. Gmail implemented, many years ago, a new extension to IMAP (and SMTP) that allows using OAuth 2 for IMAP logins. This effectively delegates the login action to a browser, rather than executing it inline in the protocol, and as such it allows to request OTPs, or even supporting U2F. Thunderbird on Windows does work very well with this and even supports U2F out of the box.

Sidenote: Thunderbird seems to have something silly going on. When you add a new account to it, it has a drop-down box to let you select the authentication method (or go for “Autodetect”). Unfortunately, the drop-down does not have the OAuth2 option at all. Even if you select imap.gmail.com as the server — I know hardcoding is bad, but not allowing it at all sounds worse. But if you cheat and give it 12345 as password, and select password authentication just to go through with adding the account, then you can select OAuth 2 as authentication type and it all works out.

Anyway, neither ProtonMail nor FastMail appear to have implemented this authentication method, despite the fact that, if I understood that correctly, it’s supported out of the box on Thunderbird, Apple’s Mail, and a bunch of other mail clients. Indeed, if you want to use IMAP/SMTP with FastMail, they only appear to give you the option to use application-specific passwords, which are a shame.

So why did I need IMAP access to begin with? Well, I wanted to import all my mail from Gmail into ProtonMail, and I though the easier way to do so was going to be through Thunderbird and manually copy the folders I needed. That turned out to be a mistake: Thunderbird crashed while trying to copy some of the content over, and I effectively was spending more time while waiting for it to index anything than instructing it on what to do.

Luckily there’s alternative options for this.

Important Importing Tooling

ProtonMail provides another piece of software, in addition to the Bridge, to paying customers: an Import Tool. This allows you to login to another IMAP server, and copy over the content. I decided to use that to copy over my Gmail content to ProtonMail.

First of all, the tool does not support OAuth2 authentication. To be able to access Gmail or GSuite mailboxes, it needs to use an Application-Specific Password. Annoying but not a dealbreaker for me, since I’m not enrolled in the Advanced Protection Program, which among other things disable “less-secure apps” (i.e. those apps using Application-Specific Passwords). I generated one, logged in, and selected the labels I wanted to copy over, then went to bed, a little, but not much, concerned over the 52 and counting messages that it said it was failing to import.

I woke up to the tool reporting only 32% of around fifty thousands messages imported. I paused, then resumed, the import hoping to getting it unstuck, and left to play Pokémon with my wife, coming back to a computer stuck exactly at the same point. I tried stopping and closing the Import Tool, but that didn’t work, it got stuck. I tried rebooting Windows and it refused to, because my C: drive was full. Huh?

When I went to look into it, I found a 436GB text file, that’s the log from the software. Since the file was too big to open with nearly anything on my computer, I used good old type, and beside the initial part possibly containing useful information, most of the file repeated the same error message about not being able to parse a mime type, with no message ID or subject attached. Not useful. I had to delete the file, since my system was rejecting writes because of the drive being full, but it also does not bode well for the way the importer is written: clearly there’s no retry limit on some action, no log coalescing, and no security feature to go “Hang on, am I DoSing the local system?”

I went looking for tools I could use to sync IMAP servers manually. I found isync/mbsync, which as a slightly annoyance is written in C and needs to be built, so not easy to run on Windows where I do have the ProtonMail bridge, but not something I can’t overcome. When I was looking at the website, it said to check the README for workarounds needed with certain servers. Unfortunately at the time of writing the document, in the Compatibility section, refers to “M$ Exchange” — which in 2020 is a very silly, juvenile, and annoying way to refer to what is possibly still the largest enterprise mail server out there. Yes, I am judging a project by its README the way you judge a book by its cover, but I would expect that a project unable to call Microsoft by its name in this day and age is unlikely to have added support for OAuth2 authentication or any of the many extensions that Gmail provides for efficient listing of messages.

I turned to FastMail to see how they are implementing it: importing Gmail or GSuite content can be done directly on their server side: they require you to provide OAuth2 access to all your email (but then again, if you’re planning to use them as your service provider, you kind of are already doing that). It does not allow you to choose which labels you want to import: it’ll clone everything, even your trash/bin folder. So at the time of writing it’s importing 180k messages. It took a while, and it showed the funny result of saying «175,784 of 172,368 messages imported.» Bonus point to FastMail for actually sending the completion note as an email, so that it can be fetched accordingly.

A side effect of FastMail doing the imports server side is that there’s no way for you to transfer ProtonMail boxes to FastMail, or any other equivalent server with server-side import: the Bridge needs to run on your local system for you to authenticate. It’s effectively an additional lock-in.

Instead of insisting on self-hosting options, I honestly feel that the FLOSS activists should maybe invest a little more thought and time on providing ways for average users with average needs to migrate their content, avoiding the lock-in. Because even if the perfect self-hosting email solution is out there, right now trying to migrate to it would be an absolute nightmare and nobody will bother, preferring to stick to their perfectly-working locked-in cloud provider.

Missing Features Mayhem

At that point I was a bit annoyed, but I had no urgency to move the old email away, for now at least. So instead I went on to check how ProtonMail worked as primary mail interface. I changed MX around, set up the various verification methods, and waited. One of the nice things of migrating the mail provider is that you end up realizing just how many mailing lists and stuff you keep receiving, that you previously just filed away with filters.

I removed a bunch of subscriptions to open source mailing lists for projects I am no longer directly involved in, and unlikely to go back to, and then I started looking at other newsletters and promotions. For at least one of them, I thought I would probably be better served by NewsBlur‘s newsletter-to-RSS interface. As documented in the service itself, the recommended way to use this is to create a filter that takes the input newsletter and forwards them to your newsblur alias.

And here’s the first ProtonMail feature that I’m missing: there’s no way to set up forwarding filters. This is more than a bit annoying: there was mail coming to my address that I used to forward to my mother (mostly bills related to her house, before I set up a separate domain with multiple aliases that point at our two addresses), and there still are a few messages that come to me only, that I forward to my wife, where using our other alias addresses is not feasible for various reasons.

But it’s not just a matter of forwards that is missing. When I looked into the filter system of ProtonMail I found it very lacking. You can’t filter based on an arbitrary header. You cannot filter based on a list-id! Despite the webmail being able to tell that an email came through from a mailing list, and providing an explicit Unsubscribe button, based on the headers, it neither has a “Filter messages like these” like Gmail has, nor a way to select this manually. And that is a lot more annoying.

FastMail, by comparison, provides a much more detailed rules support, including the ability to provide them directly in Sieve language, and it allows forward-and-delete of email as well, which is exactly what the NewsBlur integration needs (although to note, while you can see the interface for do that, trial accounts can’t set up forwarding rules!) And yes, the “Add Rule from Message” flow defaults to the list identifier for the messages. Also, to one-up even Gmail on this, you can set those rules from the mobile app as well — and if you think this is not that big of a deal, just think of much more likely you are to have spare time to do this kind of boring tasks while waiting for your train (if you commute by train, that is).

In terms of features, it seems like FastMail has the clear upper hand. Even ignoring the calendar provided, it supports the modern “Snooze” concept, letting mail show up later in the day or the week (which is great when, say, you don’t want to keep the unread email about your job interviews to show up on your mail inbox at the office), and it even has the ability to permanently delete messages in certain folders on after a certain amount of days — just like gmaillabelpurge! I think this last feature is the one that made me realize I really just need to use FastMail.

Sending It All Out

As I said earlier, even before trying to decide which one of the two providers to try, I gave up on the idea of being able to use either of them with git send-email to send kernel patches and similar. Neither of them supports OAuth2 authentication, and I was told there’s no way to set up a “send-only” environment.

My solution to this was to bite the bullet and deal with a real(ish) sendmail implementation again, by using a script that would connect over SSH to one of my servers, and use the postfix instance there (noting that I’m trying to cut down on having to run my own servers). I briefly considered using my HTPC for that, but then I realized that it would require me to put my home IP addresses in the SPF records for my domain, and I didn’t really want to publicise those as much.

But it turned out the information I found was incorrect. FastMail does support SMTP-only Application Specific Passwords! This is an awesomely secure feature that not even Gmail has right now, and it makes it a breeze to configure Git for it, and the worst that can happen is that someone can spoof your email address, until you figure it out. That does not mean that it’s safe to share that password around, but it does make it much less risky to keep the password on, say, your laptop.

I would even venture that this is even safer than the sendgmail approach that I linked above, as the other one requires full mail access with the token, which can easily be abused by an attacker.

Conclusion

So at the end of this whole odyssey, I decided to stick with FastMail.

ProtonMail sounds good on paper, but it give me the impression that it’s overengineered in implementation, and not thought out enough in feature design. I cannot otherwise see how many basic features (forwarding filters, send-only protocol support — C-S-c to add a CC line) would otherwise be missing. And I’m very surprised about the security angle for the whole service.

FastMail does have some rough edges, particularly on their webapp. Small things, like being able to right-click to get a context menu would be nice. U2F support is clearly lacking: having it work on their Android app for me would be a huge step forward. And I should point out that FastMail has a much friendlier way to test its service, as the 30 days free option includes nearly all of the functionality and enough space to test an import of the data from a 10 years old Gmail.

4 thoughts on “Oh Gosh, Trying to Find a New Email Provider in 2020

    1. I’m using Mailbox.org and … well, they have a lot of features including rich email filtering and forwarding options. However, you probably don’t want to use them if you live in webmail. Their interface is a bit frustrating.

      I kid you not, this is the address you need to type in to get to your inbox: https://office.mailbox.org/appsuite/#!!&app=io.ox/mail&folder=default0/INBOX. There’s no quick-domain that will forward you to your inbox without prompting you to login again (even though you’re already logged in.)

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  1. I’ve considered migrating to Tutanota after being a customer with Mailbox.org, FastMail, and Runbox. ProtonMail is way too expensive compared to the competition. However, I feel a bit cheated when free accounts at Tutanota get the same amount of storage a paid accounts (one gigabyte). I’m also confused by some of their marketing claims. “Up to 5 aliases” for paid accounts sounds contradictory to also claiming to support catch-all/wildcard addressing. I contacted them for a clarification and got an utterly confused answer in reply. They do support a dialect of SIEVE for rich filtering rules and forwarding, though.

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  2. I’m destined to just use consumer Gmail when I finally GSuite-exit. You can configure it to send via your domain and have a receiver that forwards your mail to Gmail. Good enough.

    Any false hope of an email address being a primary identifier for things on the internet has long since been abandoned when mobile and social both came along and we lost the xmpp and open data standards ideology so I’m not concerned with chat integration mattering anymore. It’s effectively a 18 separate applications already.

    Looking back, when I migrated in to Gmail it appears I bounced all of my email from existing mh or mbox mailboxes on from my local shells to my address at my google apps for my domain account. their contents stayed intact perfectly but gmail has them all listed as October 7 2006 for the date in its index (bounce date) despite what the original headers in the messages say. so whatever you do, I don’t recommend that approach. :P

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