Why email will never be Free…

Hello! This blog is not dead and neither am I. It’s been a long while since I’ve written anything here and the site is starting to look a bit abandoned. I’ve been seriously busy with what I refer to as ‘life stuff’ over the last few months and my ‘tech-time’ has been a bit squeezed, so I haven’t had much to write about. I’m now getting back into the swing of things and starting to think of stuff to write about.

Email. We all use it. It works, right? Well for the most part. It’s probably one of the most used and simplest forms of digital communication available today. Shame it’s so horribly complicated then.

My major task over the last couple of weeks has been getting my new server set up so that it hosts my own email and provides accounts for members of my family. I’ve actually been doing this on and off pretty much since I got the server, but with the release of CentOS 6 I decided to cut my losses and upgrade sooner rather than later.

So I set out installing Postfix and Dovecot, following the instructions on the CentOS wiki pages. I managed to get through all the configuration of Amavisd, ClamAV and Spamassasin and I installed Roundcube for webmail access. Then I started thinking about adding users for my family and came to the decision that I didn’t want to add shell users for every email account, so I would modify my set up to incorporate virtual users and domains. After following a dead end of setting this up using plain text files (which turns out to be more fiddly to administer than shell accounts) I settled on using Postfix.admin with a database based system. Then there were my adventures with sieve, managesieve and Roundcube, which turned into a whole afternoon of getting nowhere.

Now my gripe here isn’t with the software. Far from it, all the previously mentioned software is excellent. Nor is it even with the documentation, although that is lacking in some areas, usually a quick web search will find you a useful forum post. No, my problem here is that I had to do all this in the first place in order to set up a Autonomous Free Software based mail system.

Given that I did this partly for the fun of it (yes I appear to like the pain of making tea), this isn’t really a problem for me. When I changed over my DNS everything pretty much worked, but I’m not your average user. Now, I know there are things like iRedMail, which can automate all this stuff and if I hadn’t wanted to learn how a mail system works I probably would have tried it. However, I’m skeptical as to the reliability of such a system.

This brings us to the crux of the problem. Email is too complicated! Think about all those disparate components I listed above, each of which is developed separately and has to interact seamlessly in order for the system to keep going. If one breaks, you’re screwed. I think this is probably worse in a iRedMail based system as the administrator would have no expertise in the inner workings of the system.

This leads me to my actual point (finally!). This is why people use Gmail, Hotmail, etc. It’s not because they would otherwise have to provide their own hosting, it’s because these services make it easy. I think what I’m basically asking for is “WordPress for email”. Something I can just unpack point it at a database and go, without having to know an what an RBL is. Yes, this wouldn’t be as easy as Gmail, but Blogger or Tumblr are easier than self-hosted WordPress and there are still tons of WordPress blogs out there. It would put Free Software based email within the reach of the ordinary computer literate person.

My fear is that the Free Software community treats email as a largely solved problem. We have loads of great software, which works for those of us with beards. However, until we make it easy to use, simple, cohesive and pretty, email is destined to languish in the land of the non-Free.

Giving this site an overhaul…

Things are changing…

I’m currently in the process of giving this site an overhaul, with the intention of increasing the number of visitors I get. I’m also going to experiment with various ways to try and support the site (with the eventual aim of making the site self sufficient). So far I’ve changed a couple of things:

  • I’ve added a proper image gallery thanks to the NextGEN Gallery plugin. This isn’t really intended to increase visitor numbers but gives me an easier way to share my photos, without surrendering them to Facebook! You can view my public gallery now, but I still need to upload more photos.
  • I’ve switched away from Google Analytics, to a self hosted Piwik instance. This lets me take control of my tracking data and for visitors to my site it means that your usage data stays between you and me, without Google butting in! I’m also going to add the opt-out button to the side bar for anyone who really doesn’t want to share their data. So far I’m really pleased with Piwik, hopefully I’ll review it when its been running for a bit longer.

Here’s what’s in the pipeline:

  • Removing Google Ads: basically they’re not making me any money and I’m increasingly objecting to the tracking/profiling they do. I’m going to replace them with AdBard, but I’m still waiting for my account to be approved.
  • I also want to experiment with Flattr: which as well as hopefully making me some money, will allow me to give something back to other people producing content I like.
  • A new site theme: probably a modified version of an already available theme. I want something clean and I want to be able to personalise it easily. Suggestions will be gratefully received! (via the comments on this post).
  • More pages: I really need a better about page and I also want to do a digital CV. I’m also thinking about project pages for the coding projects I’m working on.
  • More content: obviously, the secret to getting more visitors lies in having more quality content. I happen to think my content is of good quality and some of it scores pretty highly in related google searches. I just need more of it! This comes down to having the time to blog and stuff to blog about. I’m trying to set aside more time for blogging and think of more topics to blog about. Be prepared to see a wider range of content hopefully appearing soon.

I’m approaching this, as I initially approached blogging, as an experiment. I don’t know how far I’ll get, but I’ll report on my progress as I go. If anyone has anything they want to share or their own experiences from promoting their own site, please feel free to comment.

Some Tramping Photos

Update: I recently discovered the NextGEN Gallery plugin, so I’ve updated this post to use it.

So, I finally worked out that WordPress can do awesome photo galleries. This means I have somewhere to put my photos that isn’t evil (i.e. not Facebook), that actually works and is simple to use. Yay!

Here are a few photos from some tramping trips I organised over the last few weeks, the first was to the Dome Forest Park and the other was to Pohuehue Scenic Park.

[nggallery id=2]