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Topicbox – FastMail’s new product for teams (fastmail.com)
113 points by robert-boehnke 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 73 comments

Would there be any way to turn this into a Zendesk-like solution, using threads for each support inquiry, and assignments of some sort?

We're happy Fastmail email users, and can almost live with email for support, and barely use any Zendesk features other than assignments, internal notes, and various views. But those three simple ZD features we do use are critical.

I pinged the product lead (and told her to get a hacker news account of her own!)

Answer: we've definitely talked about how it would be great as a lightweight client management system for a freelancer or consulting firm. We're definitely looking ahead to possible integrations, too!


From myself - we talk a lot about "teams" with Topicbox, but it's really any group of poeple who share a common interest or responsibility. One market we've identified is homeowners' associations or "body corporates" as they're often called here in Australia. They have membership turnover as people buy and sell, and they have long running projects with a need to keep history. Finally, they consist of people who use different mail services, because unlike a business where everyone is on the same solution, a set of homeowners share nothing other than the locality in which they live. So a heterogeneous system like Topicbox with archivable topics and searchable history is ideal.

I'm always a big fan of org. wikis...but the challenge is some users slack off on creating/posting content...but this topicbox seems like users can simply draft/send an email, and bam its content for a sort of "wiki". This is a great idea, even if only for the low curve of easily "creating" organizational content! Kudos to fastmail!

i find topicbox to sound more like a supercharged mailing-list

personally i think mailing-list is the most important communication tool for team work, and i think more organization need to use them

sadly the only mailing-list software for windows/exchange i found was commercial, expensive and will be a hard sell ...

Well I was going to say I don't really see how this is much different from e.g. Google Groups. Groups messages go into an archive that is searchable/readable by new members. But just having a message archive isn't really that helpful unless it can be organized further, and that's where it breaks down -- the job of organizing the group archive has all the same problems of keeping the team wiki up to date: its easy to get behind, and the content grows stale or hard to use.

Unless there are any alternative interfaces I'm unaware of, Google group's biggest problem isn't its feature set, but its godawful interface... It feels like someone that never heard of usenet took a look at early version of phpbb and proclaimed: we can do worse!

LOL yes I do agree, Google Group has an astonishingly bad UI especially considering it's from a company with the resouces of Google.

This is exactly why we build topicbox! We like mailing lists, and we want an archive which is useful.

> sadly the only mailing-list software for windows/exchange i found was commercial, expensive and will be a hard sell ...

Not that I am campaigning against Topicbox, but I think it's worth making clear that just because your email is hosted on Exchange, doesn't mean your mailing list solution needs to be.

You can run, and I have in fact run, mailinglists on top of Mailman / Debian / Postfix / Nginx, in a heterogenous environment where the mailservers were Exchange (and some shitty hosted Exchange run by morons to boot). You can do it without even reconfiguring Exchange if you are willing to put all the lists in a subdomain with its own MX record.

No reason why a hosted solution couldn't work this way as well. If you don't want to have your mailinglists in a subdomain, then you would need mailserver configuration to set up the aliases correctly, and that creates a certain amount of maintenance hassle every time you create a new list, but I've never been convinced that's a worthwhile tradeoff to make. Making mailinglists instantly discernible from humans' addresses isn't necessarily bad.

all mailing list software that i found, targeted linux or unix-like operating systems

the only option i found for windows was listserv which cost 2K and up .. getting approval for a $2000+ .. at least where i work, needs a super solid business case ..

i would argue that at this cost, maybe i should as for a linux box, but then again, who will admin that, who will install and admin postgresql (as an example of a dependency of some of those mailing list softwares)


Aren't many businesses going to be leery of sending their group emails to yet another external domain to be archived? Where are the turnkey open source email servers after 40 years? It seems no one solved SPAM in a way that's compatible with sending out your own, but for receiving and internal stuff like this?

I can't wait to see products like these spawn brand new professions like Email Summarizers to get the gist out of long threads, Department Librarians to organize and catalog discussions and events, and Communications Coordinators to train teams on more effective patterns of e-communication.

PMs unwittingly take all these roles today, but these tools will surely unlock further specialization.

Many moons ago I worked at a consultancy that was struggling with knowledge sharing across continents and hundreds of projects. I suggested three paths: a company-wide search engine that would return results across all project files (Google used to sell such a solution, in a box); a part-time librarian role in each project team to make sure project documents were correctly named, the latest version was stored on the central file server, and they knew how to reach out to other project librarians; and finally a one-day after-action review workshop for every single project team as part of project closure. Plus a few additional activities for project teams and suggestions for long-term project staffing systems.

Some of it was done, very satisfyingly; some of it we didn't get around to trying. Then the dotcom meltdown happened.

This just a mailing list, right? What am I missing?

I think it has a nice UI, and presumably it's also a hosted solution.

But fundamentally it seems to have many of the same features that Mailman et al have had for decades.

Good on them if they can make mailinglist archives great again, though. I think they're an underappreciated resource, and maybe a slick interface and some rebranding is just what they need.

The naming and the copy about team communication made me think it’s more than it is. Not suggesting it has low utility, although I wish it did more than add search to a hosted mailing list... google groups has search (in an old interface). Seems like there’s a lot of opportunity to fix emails weaknesses here if the product is truly focused on topics and teams.

Their FAQ even mentions migrating from listserv as an option by talking with their team.

Seems like mailing list with a nicer UI that allows for searching etc.....

Could this be considered an alternative to Discourse?

FastMail really needs a UX team and graphic designer.

What they have to launch is a cheaper service. Their prices are laughable, although I can understand that, given they have no competition.

We're not interested in a race to the bottom. We provide a high quality service and we charge enough to provide that service. We're clear about our values:


and we unashamedly charge enough money to keep building a good service and providing a good service.

Is there followup post-mortems to incidents like this which is over a month ago?

[Fastmail] Services have been restored. The problem was a a network peering issue, leading to our services being unavailable to parts of the internet. We're working with our network provider to understand what happened and what improvements we can make in the future. Thank you for your patience.

An 1hr15mins of connectivity issues is quite significant imo.

Wary after the Imgix several hours of 500/504 disaster and still no technical post-mortem..

Hmm... this is the Aug 5th incident right? Here's the post-mortem from NYI:

"On Saturday, August 5, 2017, there was scheduled maintenance period on a core switch in our NYC Datacenter Facility that was scheduled from 10:30PM - 2AM. Customers that were directly connected to this switch were notified that there would be a service impacting maintenance but there was no expected impact beyond these specific connections.

For some time during this maintenance, traffic from some upstream peers, including Cogent and the NYIIX Peering Exchange, experienced increased latency and intermittent loss of connectivity, due to a misconfiguration that did not effectively re-converge this traffic to other upstream providers. This incident started at approximately 11:30PM and was resolved by 12:30AM.

We have resolved the root cause of the issue, added additional monitoring and updated our notification procedures to ensure that all customers are notified in the future for such maintenance windows, even when there is no expected service impact. We are also upgrading our notification systems and customers will be contacted in the near future to confirm the contacts listed on the account to ensure that all such notifications are properly received."

This is the first time I've seen them mess something like this up in a very long time, and they're really good about fixing their proceedures afterwards.

We've been offline for similar lengths of time during the nasty run of DDOS attacks on providers a couple of years ago, but having upgraded to Fibre to the rack, 10G drops to the external bladecentres and DDOS protection services on our public IP range plus hidden private ranges for our backhaul services, we have successfully mitigated all the driveby attacks since.

... that and we haven't been a target for a bit (touch wood) - though we will write up something the DNS attacks at some point, they were a bit spectacular. Went from 200 req/sec to 100,000 req/sec for random hostnames on our servers. The engineering challenges to cope with that while still providing our powerful custom DNS options are quite interesting in retrospect. Not so much at the time!

Are you localized in regional datacenters yet such as SGP? Not so much a problem on the web combined with a CDN, but old school IMAP can be quite chatty, combined with high RTT latency, it becomes quite noticeable.

Good morning from Melbourne. I myself am not localised in datacentres all around the world, so I had to sleep.

That's why we're working on JMAP! Localising comes with a ton of downsides, including the fact that of the 3 other datacentres we've installed into, none have been anywhere near the quality of services that we've had from NYI over the years.


(and yes I see another comment in this thread that I'll reply to in a second about a 1 hour network outage we had... it's the biggest outage we've had in years. Our other datacentres have had much bigger downtimes during that period)

Particularly with the increase in mobile clients that change networks regularly, we don't see a future in old school IMAP as the preferred way to access email. Please check out the JMAP working group for what we see as the future :)


So we prefer to consolidate in a few high-quality datacentres and build protocols which work well from anywhere in the world.

I disagree. You charge a very high price for a service because you know you have no competition, like Apple does. You have your right to do so. But that's the way it is.

As others have already noted (and I should stop reading this and go to bed, it's after midnight here and I have to work in the morning!) we have plenty of competition, and it's either plastered with ads or similarly priced, because that's what it costs to run a service while giving your staff a decent living and continuing to improve your service over time.

As I said here: https://blog.fastmail.com/2016/12/01/fastmail-advent-2016/

... one of the most common questions was "aren't you worried about giving away all your secrets?" Actually, we really are not. Running an email service is hard work, and providing the speed, reliability and stream of new features would not be easy to replicate. So we're happy to share our stories...

We contribute a lot to open source, and we're doing a lot in the standards space now to make sure email remains open. Topicbox is built on top of a draft of the JMAP protocol which is currently being worked on at the IETF, and will be updated to follow the standard. We have staff going to CalConnect to work on calendaring standards in a couple of weeks because we're investing in advancing the field as well. That also costs money, and we're self funded, so we can't afford to sell email accounts at a loss.

It also means we have no secret customer. Our paying customers are our actual customers, not the product we're using to pump up the valuation or collect data from. It's a simple business proposition, money for service. I'm proud to charge money for what we do.

> It also means we have no secret customer. Our paying customers are our actual customers, not the product we're using to pump up the valuation or collect data from.

As an actual, paying customer I just want to express just how much I appreciate that someone is actually doing this.

The internet has lots of creepy companies spying on your every move. Actually paying for a service and knowing that there's nobody looking over your shoulder feels really good. I wish there were more companies like that.

I've been a personal paying user of Fastmail for over 5 years now. It's been great. For my own company and for another business I started late last year I've also selected Fastmail as an email provider again. Just wanted to say thanks to you and the rest of the team. Keep doing what you're doing and I'll happily keep on shelling over some dollars your way.

As a new customer of Fastmail, that was the exact reason I went to you. I like that Fastmail cares about my privacy and doesn't track me, fully supports open standards, interoperates with other services seamlessly (so I can decide what features I want and do not want to use) and I can fully download and delete my data if I want to. It is well worth the premium, please keep up what you do!

Thanks to those who've replied to this - feeling the love!

This is the hard bit about trying to sell Topicbox to you lot - you already HAVE a good interface to email, and the value of the easy-to-use archive comes later when you add another person to a group months down the track.

Another happy personal user of FastMail here. I love the service, it is literally really fast for delivering and receiving email. I went with FastMail due to the privacy concerns I had with other providers. It also lets me use my own domain with full DKIM and SPF, has shared calendars and separate 'account' passwords for different apps. Happy to pay for reliable, somewhat secure email.

As a happy customer, I came for the custom sieve script many many years ago, and I've stayed for many other reasons.

Thank you.

As (yet another) paying customer, I greatly appreciate what you do and how you do it. Charge me more, if you need to!

Really? $0.1 per day ($0.16 w/ custom domain) for high quality, privacy oriented email is a high price?

I would gladly pay quadruple that if I had to.

My personal problem is that I'm way too deeply engaged with Google now. I was fortunate enough to get a Google Apps account back when it was a free service, and I have been providing all the Google services for me and all my family for free for several years.

Fastmail looks absolutely incredible and I've never heard the slightest bad thing about them, but it'd cost me $250/month to get the same level of service I get now for free. :/

> My personal problem is that I'm way too deeply engaged with Google now.

That's exactly the reason I migrated to Fastmail. Ever since Google shutdown Reader, I've been slowly replacing Google services with alternatives as much as I can.

Gmail -> Fastmail

Calendar -> Fastmail

Reader -> Self-hosted Commafeed

Drive -> Self-hosted Nextcloud


Not only does FastMail have a lot of competition, they have a lot of cheap competition. Bear in mind, they not only have to beat companies like Slack here which offer their service free to a certain extent, but old mailing list classics like Google Groups as well.

Yeah if only someone else would launch an email service!

Fastmail has plenty of competition. Some of it with markedly lower prices, but one of it with a comparable quality and smoothness of operation.

Where I live, $5 will buy you a sort of decent loaf of bread or about 3.5 liters of gasoline or cup of coffe out on the town if you are lucky. I happily shoot Fastmail that small amount every thirty days for a neat, stable, well thought out product which saves me all the joyless hassle of running things myself.

Spot on. There is some very odd psychology at work with people's attitude towards software licensing/service prices. It's clear that many people are actively angry when something is more expensive than some ideal arbitrarily low price (unrelated to the costs of providing the service) they have in mind.

I don't even use Fastmail any longer, great though it is, because I have had to cut my costs absolutely to the bone in recent years. But I'm truly glad such an excellent service exists for if/when I'm again ready to pay for it, and that the engineers involved can get paid for doing a good job.

How is fastmail's spam filtering? I've been using Zoho mail for a while and like it except their spam filtering is quite poor.

I've had FastMail about a year, and have yet to get enough spam (200 messages) to trigger their personalized spam filter. Despite the address being signed up... everywhere. The non-personalized ranking system uses common spam ranking services out there, and scores emails about as well as you'd expect from the average corporate spam filter.

FastMail's data collection of your email for their own use is incredibly, incredibly limited, so a lot of things other providers use won't really work for FastMail.

Re: Zoho, when things go wrong expect days of issues and no real replies, but green status pages due to old school sharding behind the scenes (only small number of customers effected so well stay green, I.e. no mail for three days). Premium customer? Call their support number, yep a voicemail, a callback? not within 24hrs. Terrible company. Sloppy products. Dont ever recommend this to clients, even if the client is a cheapstake and 5 free accounts appeals just say 'not on my name'

Zoho Mail? Don't even get me started … We had so many laughable problems with that service. Like being unable to remove a user account because the whole management UI was just plain broken. We tried removing the account for I don't know how many months. When I let them know about the issue I got a response asking for a scan of the CEO's ID card. Finally they fixed it but then the login broke. When I tried logging in to the management UI, all I got was a redirect back to the login screen. Hell I could go on. Moved everything off to AWS WorkMail and learned my lesson.

Yep. So many WTFs. You could lock an account (and associated IMAP connector) just by paging in the web UI too fast, with users that like to page vs search to find a message this was quite a problem as they could no longer get messages via UI or their phone. When they explained this 3 days later (typical response time) I nearly fell off my chair, this was after six unanswered voicemails and a few emails (paying customer of 9 accounts I think ~ $90/m)

OT: How has AWS WorkMail been?

One spam mail slipped through so far, otherwise no complaints and I've heard good things from people using its web UI. Can recommend WorkMail

I wanted to try Zoho about a year ago, but couldn't even get through their sign-up process without errors that prevented completion. Never went back. First impressions and all.

It's pretty good, especially after I've trained it with enough spam & ham emails to turn on its personal ruleset - probably not as good as Google spam filter, but at least I have some visibility into why given message was misclassified.

Additionally, you can read the email's source transmission. That way you can read the SpamAssassin headers and see exactly why it was flagged ham or spam. It's been a pretty indispensable tool for email testing for my personal projects for how nifty it is.

I've noticed a few (2-3 per month) getting through with names of people in my address book, but not the email address, so it seems to be doing some type whitelisting there, other than that, its catching everything.

IMO it's not unreasonable. <$400 / month for 200 employees seems fair, especially given their standard email service is $3 / month / user.

It's also for Enterprise, which typically has a higher price tag.

I meant their regular service. $5 per account is completely unreasonable, I don't understand where the money goes. (I talk about the $5 plan because it's the same as the $3 plan, but you can use your own domain, which doesn't really make it more complicated for them to give you service or anything)

Staff to run things well and develop new features, plus redundancy. We have roughly a 10/1 ratio of disk usage to quota by the time you count RAID overhead, local and offsite replica plus backups, and that includes really high end SSDs for indexes and recent emails.

Sure we could half-arse things and run cheaper, but that's not the business we're in. We provide a high quality product, and we truly believe we're worth it. No apologies for that price, it's quite reasonable for the value we provide.

I've had a lot of people ask me why I pay for email service (I use Fastmail). There are many free options available. Email is important to my work, and the free options are not at all what I'm looking for.

If you want to play the premium price game, you better be able to back it up with a good customer experience, and Fastmail does. That's why you see so many positive comments in any discussion of email.

Fully agree. Fastmail is one of the very few "cloud" services I think is worth paying for (as an individual -- obviously businesses find value in e.g. AWS). I do the annual payment of $50 which effectively is two free months out of the year.

> it's quite reasonable for the value we provide.

The rest of your post is fine, but don't say this when pitching your product because value is entirely in the eye of the customer.

You're right - people who don't see that value won't be our customers, and I should have said "quite reasonable for the product that we provide" or similar instead.

We have made a conscious choice that we aren't going to chase after the really price sensitive customer.

We're OK with not having those customers. If price is your ONLY deciding factor, then FastMail isn't for you, because we'll never be the cheapest option. You can't compete with free if you don't have another funding source to subsidise the product.

And we don't: all our income comes from selling our service, so we can't compete on price alone. We have to compete on quality, features and execution.

I wound up moving this paragraph deep into the blog post because it wasn't the point of the post - but it is one of my key driving principles:

"Our goal is to solve your email needs as quickly as possible so you can get on with everything else in your life."

We don't want to keep our customers' eyeballs on our site longer than the minimum required to achieve their goals.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a VPS to rent and host your own email server for much less than $5/mo. And that's just an empty server! Now you've gotta set up the email software and hope to god people get your emails since they aren't coming from a reputable source.

You can get a Scaleways machine for €2.99 a month which will handle a reasonable volume of email.

BUT. The ongoing faff and arsing about and maintenance isn't fun. If I didn't have many, many accounts for me and other people on my servers, I'd have migrated to FastMail a long time ago.

Never heard of Scaleway...those prices seem to beat the pants of DigitalOcean. Might have to look into that, thank you for mentioning.

(Disclaimer: anecdata follows)

The Mastodon instance I use is hosted at Scaleway. It's had multiple multi-day outages due to failures at Scaleway's end.

Cheap is great and all, but this experience has not been the kind that would lead me to recommend using Scaleway for any service you need to be reliable.

They (Scaleway) are ARM machines, no?

Depends which offer you are looking at. They also have x86 VPS options using Atom chips.

You can still run mail servers on them though. You might have to compile stuff up for yourself if your distro doesn't support it but I've found Arch to be pretty good in this respect.

That's all fine, but then you're one hardware failure away from not being able to receive email.

I'm working on a guide on how to setup a replicated fault tolerant email cluster (galera/dsync) here [1] -- feedback appreciated.

This costs far more than something like fastmail, however. Depending on your situation you might value cost over peace of mind.

1: https://medium.com/@cyberpunk_networks/nsa-proof-your-email-...

> galera

Unfortunately, with Galera, you're not even a hardware failure away from losing / corrupting email.


> Unfortunately, even in totally healthy clusters, with no node failures or network failures, Galera Cluster does not satisfy its claims of Snapshot Isolation.

In this scenario the galera DB is only hosting virtual aliases/account info etc -- it's essentially read-only unless I'm adding accounts so the fail cases are less severe than if I was constantly writing data.

I'll add a section on recovery, but even with a few hundred thousand email inboxes my database size is likely to be under 100mb and backing that up will cause no issues in live since I'm only doing SELECT 99.99% of the time; each of my nodes dumps the db into /var somewhere every hour.

I gladly pay them $5 a month because hosting my own email server sucked and I'd much rather pay someone else who does it well.

unreasonable compared to who? or to what?

the comparable offer from google is also $5

As a paying user, I find it's more than reasonable. Although, I do wish they'd seperate their calendar portion to another app - their email service is superb for the price. Else, I'd have to pay $5 / month minimum, to host my own -_-

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