Better Webmail?

MailBlocks is a new Web-based email service from Phil Goldman, one of the founders of WebTV. It’s slickly done, with a significantly better user experience than Yahoo! or Hotmail. Unlike Oddpost, it doesn’t require Internet Explorer, though there are still bugs in support for other browsers.

Goldman wants to do to Web-based email what Google did to search. Mailblocks focuses on core functionality and performance, rather than blasting users with ads. The price, $9.95 per year, is reasonable for what Mailblocks delivers.

Most of the coverage of MailBlocks focuses on its anti-spam features. Mailblocks uses a challenge-response mechanism (what I’d call a whitelist). In the past, I’ve predicted that most active email users would switch to whitelists to avoid spam.

Goldman has done two things to make whitelists widespread. He’s spent several months tweaking his system to make it easy and reliable. And he’s purchased several patents that he believes give him ownership of the fundamental IP around the mechanism. There are several other whitelist applications and services available today, though none has set the world on fire. We’ll see whether MailBlocks’ patents help or hinder adoption.

As for me, I’m quite interested in trying Mailblocks, since I get over 600 spams per day. Unfortunately, the feature to allow you to import existing contacts into your whitelist doesn’t appear to be working yet. I don’t want to make the 2000 people in my address book go through the challenge process. I think others will feel the same.

If MailBlocks delivers on its promise, it could be a big success. Webmail is a big application that none of the existing providers is really focused on, much like search when Google came on the scene. Ten million users paying $9.95/year doesn’t seem unrealistic in a couple years. However, the company needs to smooth out some rough edges. If you want to build a killer app, little things matter a lot.

UPDATE: Declan McCullagh forwards some worrisome terms in the MailBlocks terms of service. They reserve the right to send direct or third-party commercial messages to their users, with no opt-out. This is problematic for a service that promotes itself as a spam killer.

UPDATE #2: Apparently Mailblocks had an old version of its terms of service on the Website. The updated version, which is there now, is reportedly somewhat better.