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Goodbye, ProtonMail

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Since January 2021—for exactly two years—after ditching Google’s products, I relied on the Swiss ProtonMail service to send and receive mails from my own domain. Until today, when I switched to Germany-based More than a few reasons made me finally look past my yearly subscription there: in this post, I’ll give a brief overview.

I originally landed on ProtonMail as the de facto privacy-focused mail provider where end-to-end encryption, encryption-at-rest, and all that public/private key good stuff matters most. Except that as the months and years progressed, I never made any use of them. The e-mail protocol is unencrypted by design, meaning if you’re concerned with your privacy, you shouldn’t use e-mail at all. Exchange of (PGP or otherwise) encryption keys is something for the cool kids that I only dabbled with twice because a friend and I were figuring out stuff. In reality, I also converse with non-tech folks through e-mail, which have no knowledge on how to encrypt their mail, even with software addons such as PGP, that should make life easier. In short, I found myself mailing to addresses, to people who don’t care about encryption, and to people who don’t know what it is.

Then there’s ProtonMail’s awkward way of handling encryption: since e-mail can’t do it, they have proprietary software on top of the protocol to handle that. If you want to use mail clients such as Apple’s Mail, MS Outlook or Thunderbird, you have to install a “ProtonBridge” first, otherwise the clients won’t understand the mail header and contents. In 2021, that app was slow and buggy at best, so I relied on the web UI instead. As Ruben Schade points out, desktop mails serve a purpose, and I want to get rid of reading mails inside my browser, preferably without the bridge.

Then there was the big 2022 redesign, oh boy. ProtonMail became Proton’s Mail—get it? It’s now suddenly expanded into a corporate suite of privacy-focused productivity tools, supposedly wanting to compete head-on with Google’s Suite. Sure, why not, except that I don’t care about any of those things: I want to mail stuff. I don’t want free or paid Dropbox-like features, nor am I interested in yet another calendar or office suite, or even that “medium speed” VPN service, thank you very much. The redesigned layout is bulky and ugly. Even worse, they jammed a “SPECIAL OFFER” button in my face—as a paid customer?? This is what the web UI header looks like:

That was the last straw. Goodbye, ProtonMail.

But wait, how do you export your messages and contacts, and what mail client are you using now? Great questions, although I’m sure the answers won’t always be to your liking.

Why did I sign up at Because:

  • It’s cheap: €3/month, or only €30/year compared to Proton’s €47.88/year: 37% cheaper, while supporting 50 custom domain aliases. If you’re a fan of custom calendar stuff, it’s there as well, but I won’t be using it.
  • They focus on mails. Thank you! “It just works”: POP3 or IMAP, you choose.
  • The servers are located in Germany and it’s 100% green energy.
  • There’s still support for DKIM and all that custom DNS shizzle.
  • I’ve heard good things about them.

For Belgium, is another great alternative I’ve used in the past.

I’ve been using macOS’s Mail app for years for my work and developed a preference for a dedicated application that Just Does Mail (TM?) instead of a web-app. No Bridge required. Granted, it comes with less security options, but as said before, I ultimately never used those anyway.

After trying out a few different mail clients, including Thunderbird as still loved by the FOSS community, I have to admit that I don’t like it at all. It’s feature-heaviness makes me dizzy, and I already am pretty happy with NetNewsWire for my RSS needs. Combine that with the outdated looking UI that doesn’t seamlessly mingle with other macOS apps1. A few other Mac mail clients seem to be too much focused on “business needs” (clean up your inbox with our auto-AI!), so no thank you either. In the end, I made the switch back to Apple’s default Mail, where I simply strangled the work Exchange account and gently laid down my personal one. No way I will be crossing those streams. What a relief.

Perhaps when the Thunderbird devs finally manage to put out their 2023 redesign plans, I might give it another go.

But what to do with all those archived mails on your Proton account? The ones that were dear to me were simply printed as PDF and stored in a dedicated “conversations” folder in DEVONthink. It didn’t take long: I’m a fan of the zero inbox principle, and only archive (read: keep) what makes me smile. Invoices and spam do not. Once every few months, I’ll dig through the archives and perma-store what I want to keep, killing everything else with fire. As an organized person, I never understood GMail’s “archive everything!” mantra.

I’ll now let you in on a little secret. I don’t have a mail app anymore on my phone. I’ll say—or type—that again: I cannot receive nor send mails from my phone. Best. Decision. Ever.

Storing contact info

I used ProtonMail to store my contact information as well, but it wasn’t synced properly with my smartphone, meaning mailing addresses (you know, the snail-mail ones) were scattered. Then I remembered: wait, I have a Radicale server running, but only use the CalDAV capabilities so far! Why don’t I simply create an address book there, called a CardDAV endpoint? As mentioned before, the DAVx5 Android sync tool makes contact syncing painless, and macOS supports custom CardDAV URLs. Rejoice!

Many mail clients also support CardDAV to store and retrieve contact information. As an added bonus, now I can simply pull up any contact information through Alfred, since macOS’s Contacts app syncs with the Radicale server.

  1. None of the dark mode plugins worked as expected. The conversation plugin is clumsy to use, and the unified inbox isn’t really what I was looking for either. Why do I have to “manage extensions” anyway? That said, if Thunderbird works for you, great! ↩︎

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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