On our four-year anniversary, a look into the future of ProtonMail

Four years ago, over 10,000 people contributed to our crowdfunding campaign and jumpstarted our mission to create a more secure and private Internet for all. The job is far from done.

In the summer of 2014, we shared our vision of a better Internet and invited you to join us. Over 10,000 of you answered the call, and together with over $550,000 in donations, ProtonMail was created.

With the overwhelming success of our crowdfunding campaign, you showed us you wanted ProtonMail to be more than just another email company. You wanted a community, united in a common vision of online privacy, security, and freedom. These principles still guide us. Four years later, the community is still the main financial supporter of ProtonMail, and community input guides most of our major product decisions.

In recent months, we’ve been charting a roadmap that will help us stay true to these ideals while multiplying our positive impact on the world. Today, we’re happy to share some of these ideas with you and reflect upon some of the lessons that we have learned along the way.

Why make email better?

When the ProtonMail team first met at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Physics) back in 2013, focusing on email seemed like an odd choice. After all, email is even older than the World Wide Web, which was not created until 1991 (also at CERN). However, despite its age, email has become the world’s most successful communication technology.

Today, there are over 3.8 billion email users, more than half the world’s population, sending over 280 billion emails a day. It is the primary method of paperless communication. These numbers have been increasing, and as the world goes digital, securing email is becoming more and more important. Even if you don’t use email for communication, email remains the main form of online identity needed to sign up for most online services. Four years on, email still forms the core of our vision, and even as we broaden our focus in the coming years, we’re convinced email was the right place to start.

Scaling privacy

As former physicists, understanding how to apply existing cryptographic techniques towards protecting emails was not too challenging. Where we met our first challenge was actually in infrastructure scaling. When ProtonMail launched in public beta on May 16, 2014, we expected potentially a couple hundred signups per month — not the 10,000 we received over the first weekend. We learned our first scaling lesson the hard way when our single server hit the redline and we had to halt new user registration after just three days.

We realized we were going to need a bigger arsenal. This was when we decided to ask for help directly from you, our users. It turned out to be the right call. By the end of our crowdfunding campaign, against all expectations, we had raised over $550,000, allowing us to get ProtonMail off the ground. We are proud to still be community supported to this day, and able to put your interests first.

Today, ProtonMail operates on a different scale. We now support millions of new users every year, at a cost of millions of dollars. Scaling challenges have grown as our community has grown, and we still work night and day on building infrastructure, maintaining high reliability and performance, and ensuring the highest level of security. It’s fair to say that building (and securing) an infrastructure that can someday support hundreds of millions of users is harder than it looks, and there is still a lot of work ahead.

In many ways, we are still learning our first lesson about scaling, but it is an important lesson to master to achieve our vision of providing privacy to every citizen worldwide.

Going mainstream

While we have managed to bring online privacy to millions of people around the world in the past four years, we still have a long way to go. To truly succeed in our mission, we need to reach hundreds of millions, or even billions of people. Thus, before we even get to technology, a fundamental part of our work is bringing privacy to the mainstream consciousness.

Despite all the cyberattacks and privacy-related scandals that have hit the headlines in the past four years, the majority of the world’s Internet users still don’t have a real understanding of the risks to society posed by Google or Facebook’s business model.

We have done a lot of public outreach to change this in the past four years. In March 2015, our TED Global about ProtonMail’s mission was published and has since accumulated over 1.6 million views. We also featured in both Season 1 and Season 3 of the hit TV show Mr. Robot, as the secure email provider of the main character. Our community has been steadily growing, with users such as the Hulk, New York Times reporters, and everyone in between.

However, the concepts of why privacy matters, or why privacy is under attack, have not yet become part of the mainstream discussion in a way that would allow most users to give truly informed consent when they check “I Agree” on most terms and conditions of service. To change this, we need your help. Now more than ever, it’s essential to spread the word and advocate for more privacy and security online.

Providing a better ProtonMail experience

The core of ProtonMail is security and privacy. Better security, however, always comes with trade-offs. From a product standpoint, our core mission can be understood as minimizing these potential tradeoffs, because ultimately the strongest security tools are useless if no one can use them.

For the past four years, we have been working toward achieving feature completeness: we want ProtonMail users to have encryption, but we also want you to have access to all of the other features that existing email services currently provide. Since we launched in 2014, the gap has closed considerably.

Today, ProtonMail is also on iOS and Android, and we have added core functionality, such as filters, labels, folders, IMAP support for third-party desktop email clients, an encrypted contacts manager, and much more. For advanced users, we have added custom domain and multi-user support, so now entire organizations can use ProtonMail to protect their email communications. In the near future, we will be launching additional features, such as encrypted full-text search and other improvements so that better privacy will no longer require making sacrifices.

What the future holds for ProtonMail

The main lesson of the past four years is that bringing online privacy to the world is a lot harder than we expected. On email itself, our work is still far from finished. We’re working on a redesign that will make the ProtonMail experience more user friendly. We also remain committed to building Proton Calendar, Proton Drive, Proton Docs, and much more, so that we can provide a more private alternative to what exists today. This is where we will focus our energy and efforts in the coming years.

Accelerating our progress will not only require more resources, but also more focus, and better ways of operating our teams. The growth of the ProtonMail community in the past four years has made us realize that together, we have an important role to play in the future of the Internet. With your support, we are resolved now more than ever to rise to these challenges and build a world where privacy is not only an option, but the default. We look forward to making the Proton ecosystem bigger, better, and even more secure.

From all of us on the ProtonMail Team, our sincere thanks.

Best Regards,
The ProtonMail Team

About the Author

Andy Yen

Andy is the Founder and CEO of ProtonMail. Originally from Taiwan, he is a long time advocate of privacy rights and has spoken at TED, SXSW, and the Asian Investigative Journalism Conference about online privacy issues. Previously, Andy was a research scientist at CERN and received his PhD in Particle Physics from Harvard University. You can watch his TED talk online to learn more about ProtonMail's mission.


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30 comments on “On our four-year anniversary, a look into the future of ProtonMail

  • Andy, I’m just waiting for ProtonSearch and ProtonSocial. Continue building up your user and customer base with email and VPN, and then leverage it to launch an all out assault on Google and Facebook (which will be under serious pressure by rapidly rising use of adblockers by then anyway).

  • Privacy and Security were the main reasons I became a ProtonMail user but your promise to go open source was the main reason I chose the paid plan. I wanted to support you on your way developing great code for everyone. And now – not a single word about open source. Still the only code I can see is that of the web client. Not the code of the mobile clients nor the server code. This is so disappointing.

    • Hi! Thank you for supporting us along the way. Our apps are planned to be open source by the end of the year. Your patience is greatly appreciated.

  • Personally, i think the thing holding growth back is the lack of accessibility.
    Specifically IMAP. Yes, Bridge does provide that but only for paid users with a minimum of $5 a month.
    For a lot of users this is to high, especially if you are a student or not from western Europe or US.

    I would like to strongly suggest to introduce a “basic” plan, next to the plus plan.

    * The basic plan would cost $1 a month (like the competitors)
    * Give 1gb of space.
    * Bridge (Imap) support
    * 3 aliases. ( work/private/registrations.)
    * 10 folders/filters (to help migrating from other providers)

    Also focus more on migrating from other email providers. Giving the tools (mail collector) and instructions to setup forwarding and filtering into folders. I get the feeling may forget that people already have an email address/provider, and if they want to switch they need to properly migrate as its impossible to just give-up the old address. At least for regular family type users.

  • Thank for the great work. One caveat is your lack of transparent roadmap on new features. For example, limited User Experience (like the lack of threaded conversations, no one-click way of marking as unread, etc) is crippling the mobile apps, and users should be able to know how/when you’re planning on addressing such issues.

  • Why is it so important for you to scale to billions of people? We know that excessively centralized systems become a higher and higher risk for corruption. Why don’t you just concentrate on serving a limited number of users well, and helping other businesses and organizations build their own small-to-medium scale secure email systems? (Another comment on here mentioned open source).

    I don’t want to see you grow to where you become the thing you hate. Just focus on serving the core clients well.

  • I consider finding and switching to ProtonMail, using a custom domain, and getting on Proton VPN to be near the very top of the highlights for my life in 2018! Truly, what a find it all has been! Thank you!

  • Hi All!

    When I first came across ProtonMail, I was not that convinced. After seeing the company’s attitude towards privacy, security, freedom and free software; I switched completely to ProtonMail by becoming a Plus user. Until now I never had any regrets even though I was/am getting pressure from parents and peers that “Privacy isn’t an Issue”. ProtonMail is a great product in the history of mankind, I would say. I never seen a software product that went into maturity this fast.

    All the very best for your future endeavors!

  • Hey there,
    I guess you could partner up with Resilio Sync for your Drive service. This would provide a combination of Peer 2 Peer file sharing tools they have and the encryption tools you have. Tech utopia!

  • Nice to read some info about Protonmail’s history. And the focus on security and making that more easier.
    My opinion is dat it isn’t easy enough. Don’t know how many people use the protected e-mail, but I never use it. Too much of a hassle. It requires me to think of a password and communicate that password with the receiver through a different communication-channel. How about using 2FA using SMS? So instead of filling in a password, I just fill in the mobile number of the receiver. Much easier!

  • Best mail. I have used it from early days of protonmail. I’m glad I moved from gmail to protonmail..
    You only need some short name. Like pmail.ch or proton.ch
    People always asking me what is it, and they cant write it frist time.. I always have to repeat..

  • Great Job !
    I agree with the suggestions @Jimbo made about the plans and @qoheniac about the open-sourceing of the code, these are fundamentals to grow any community beyond what it is now.
    As an advanced user I would like to see the ability to manage calendar, files, etc.. so I can not only migrate form Google and others but also from “Kolab Now”.
    Keep up the great work!

  • I think the major next step for protonmail will be fulltext search.

    Once you can figure this out then will be relegating my Gmail account to a secondary account to access some Google services only, start paying for protonmail and use it as the primary account.

    I think the are a lot of people in my position.

    Good luck!