What is the real value of Gmail and why it's important to think about alternatives

Last month there was a discussion on Slashdot about do-it-yourself Gmail alternatives. Email is an essential Internet service. Therefore, I think that the object of that discussion is extremely important, and that it is a pity that almost nobody realizes the implications of the current email infrastructure for the masses.

The next paragraph is a synthesis of two comments in that discussion (from cshark and toygeek) that explain well what the real problem is. The parts in Italic are mine.

The whole beauty of Gmail is…

The whole beauty of Gmail (that is, its REAL value) is not that you get a lot of neat features. It’s the fact that your email almost always gets from point A to point B. This is because you have the luxury of being on a “big” mail server. Smaller mail servers, like one that you or I would set up do not get special treatment. The whole system right now is stacked against small mail servers. The minute you hit operation, you’ll find that you might already be on spam lists, and that you have to fight to get yourself off of them. Especially Barracuda, their list is the most annoying for the high number of false positives (I did experience this Barracuda problem myself!).

You will also have to “learn about reverse DNS, all those entries that you have to add so that you don’t get automagically blocked by half the populated world”. But the hassle will continue until “you start prioritizing your life and you finally give up and…..go back to Gmail” because “there is no way anyone is going to approach that level of polish with a 10 foot pole with Open Source stuff. But your data is yours. Can’t beat that.”

So, should we give up full control of our email?

Since I’ve been running my own email server since about 2007, I can confirm first hand that the issues described above do exist. However, I can also say that they are much less of a trouble than they may seem. Above all, I can also confirm that it would be much, much less of a hassle if only hosting providers started to realize that there is a market here and offered turn-key email self-hosting packages (more on this below).

So, should you give up full control of your email? Not at all. Having your own email server can and should be much easier than it is today and it is really important because email is essential. What the previous paragraph really says is that today, if you want to communicate via email with everybody you need to reach, you must give a big corporation full access to your messages, unless you’re very competent and committed.

Otherwise your messages may disappear, because “the whole system right now is stacked against small email servers”. However, the actual practical result of the current attitude (or, if you’re paranoid, the actual real goal behind it) is that life today is more difficult for people who want full privacy and control for their email than for spammers!

This is what those comments on Slashdot are really telling you: today, email has at least three big limits, that is privacy, barriers and robustness. The good news is that overcoming those limits, that is having a business or family Virtual Personal Email Server for everybody is already possible, with already existing technology. Getting there is essential because, as they put it on Slashdot, only in that case “my data is mine. Can’t beat that”. And it may also be much easier than you imagine, if only people started to ask for Virtual Personal Email Servers.