ippimail: An interview with co-founder Simon Martin. Exploring the web-mail service that runs on Free Software and donates to charity.
He tells us what ippimail is, why it was started, what drew him to Free Software, where it is at the moment, and what the future holds. I would like to thank Simon for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions, and for starting such a great service.
Can you describe your background?
SM: I was born in Sweden, hence the interest in making a social contribution perhaps… I moved to the UK when I was ten years old. I trained as a photographer but as the industry turned digital I found myself drawn to the post-production of images as opposed to the creating of them. For the last ten or fifteen years I have spent my time working with other photographers on enhancing their images as opposed to my own. This is where my interest in computers and Open Source started. I began to understand just what a computer could achieve.
The second co-founder of ippimail is a photographer who I have worked with for a number of years.
The third co-founder, my wife, has worked in charities for many years and lately worked in education for local authorities as a project manager.
Can you explain just what ippimail is?
SM: Ippimail started as a hotmail-style email service but is evolving into more of an umbrella site where users can turn their everyday web use into funds for charities at no cost to themselves. Even if you don’t want to use webmail, you can do your shopping through the ippimail shopping directory or your blogging or your Google searches through ippimail. Each activity helps raise funds for various charities.
It is also intended as a showcase for open source software. The entire site is built exclusively on OS software and we will contribute any new code we create to the community. 10% of money we raise will also go back to the community.
Why did you start ippimail?
SM: It started as my wish to contribute to the open source community. I have always been a Mac user, on moral grounds, and the introduction of OS X introduced me to the secure and standards-respecting world of Open Source.
I wanted to do my bit towards furthering the Open Source ideals. I’m not a programmer so I had to think outside the box a bit. Email is both something which everyone who uses the internet does and is perhaps the single most demanding service out there. It seemed an ideal vehicle to use to show off OS and evengelise it to a wider audience.
What drew you to Free Software?
SM: The fact that it is a community thing. Nobody really owns it. It’s therefore much more difficult for anyone to abuse. There are no lock-ins.
What do you think is the most important aspect of Free Software?
SM: The fact that it is cost-free isn’t such a big thing. The fact that it is free as in ‘freedom of speech’ is the draw for me. I also like that the source code is open so we can tailor it as we require and can fix any issues we find with it.
How well is ippimail doing?
SM: It’s much slower going than we had hoped but we are getting there. Spreading the word is the main challenge along with getting people to understand a new concept in terms of what the project is about. Things are so disposable these days that people have a hard time caring about something enough to make it grow. They want it fully formed from the start. Community efforts aren’t like that. They start small and everyone chips in.
How many charities have signed up so far?
SM: Twenty or thirty I would say… We worked very hard to get some familiar names on the list from the outset. Charities like Born Free have been fantastic to us and really understand the concept of building something.
Which of the services (mail/blogs/search/shopping) seem to be doing the best?
SM: You are really comparing apples and bowling balls there… Webmail is doing the best in terms of the number of people using it but the shopping directory is doing the best in terms of raising money. Both are as important to us.
With the webmail, the priority has been to get the actual service up to scratch, not serve the advertising. We now have really good spam filters in place, mail forwarding, filters, html composer etc etc in place.
What developments can we expect to see in the near future?
SM: We’ll be getting even better spam protection, more storage space in webmail, the blogs will be more customisable, we’ll get a US-centric shopping directory. Not necessarily in that order… We also want to introduce ‘disposable’ email addresses.
Are you planning to launch any other services?
SM: That would be telling! The priority in the near future will be to do what we are already doing but do it even better. We do have new aspects to ippimail up our sleeves. Watch this space
What else is in the future for ippimail?
SM: To really get the word out about what we are doing and get people to get more involved. We want users to take ownership of the project and run with it. We pride ourselves as being highly responsive to our users and want to build on that relationship in the future.
We also want to create partnerships with suitable companies and other websites and services. Anyone in the US who wants to sponsor us by way of hosting and storage? This way please…
What do you consider to be the benchmark for web-mail?
What is the best way for people to help?
SM: Use the services we offer! Help spread the word. Communicate any issues you have with the service to us. Volunteer to do some coding. There’s lots of ways to get involved. Even if all you ever did was go through us to do your Google searches, that would be a great help to us.
The great thing about ippimail is that helping the project out is painless. It just requires a tiny bit of time at the beginning.
Does the choice to use Google as your search source compromise your aim to showcase Free Software?
SM: Yes and no. I understand the ethical issues people have with Google, but if we want ippimail to succeed we need to be ‘mass market’, at least to some extent. Google is generally seen as the favourite search engine at the moment so that’s what we want to offer for now. Having said that, we will be offering alternatives in the future. The main problem here being getting an income from the websearch service. This is another area where Google scores highly.
The other thing is that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. Google are giving the right people some bloody noses as far as I am concerned. Sometimes we need to tickle Google’s toes as well of course…
In time, perhaps with ippimail’s help, the OS community will create a rival to google. Then the choice will be easy.
As I was saying to someone else recently, I often feel that we disappoint people who want ippimail to be ‘purer’ in the immediate term. The fact is that ippimail has to be financially viable as a first priority. This involves short term compromises. The more people get behind the project, the more we will be self sufficient and able to take an ethical stance more often. This is a tough message to get across but it’s a fact of life. We aren’t independently wealthy, sadly. Ippimail has to stand on its own feet in the long term and grow into something we can all be proud of. Truly ‘for the people, by the people’, corny as it sounds.
Thanks again to Simon.
I’m very pleased to hear about the increased storage in web-mail, and I’m particularly interested in the "disposable email addresses" (see the Wikipedia link below to find out what they are).
I really would encourage as many people as possible to sign up to ippimail, if only to try it out. The fact that it is web-mail that runs on Free Software is enough for me. The contribution to charity, and Free Software, is a clincher. The interface is a bit basic, but it’s fast. Sign up and post feature requests in the forums; submit patches to SquirrelMail. Free Software can have top-class web-mail.
- ippimail: Free Software web-mail with a feel-good factor
- ippimail: Shopping does work
- ippimail: Backstory