Get less email, and respond to it faster — for a price
By Casey Newton
With the world now in a seemingly permanent state of crisis, you may not be in the market for a new email address. And why would you be? Even in the best of times, getting a new email address comes with all the hassle of changing your phone number, without the minor upgrades that a new phone brings. Changing your email address feels like a pointless struggle in a world where the existing options, however unremarkable, work basically fine. Like changing banks, really. Or moving into a new apartment in the same building.
In any case, I’m sorry to report that it’s time to consider getting a new email address. The reason is Hey, a new email service from Basecamp. It’s a genuinely original take on messaging that feels like the first interesting thing to happen to email since clever apps like Mailbox and Sparrow repurposed your Gmail account, and it’s available in an open beta starting today. With a $99-a-year price tag and some pungent opinions about how email should work, Hey is not for all or even most people. But if you find yourself chafing at the stagnation of Gmail and Outlook, or are just looking for a way to screen out most people who would ever send you a message, Hey is well worth considering.
“The last time I think anyone was really excited about email was like 16 years ago, when Gmail launched,” says Jason Fried, Basecamp’s founder and CEO. “Not much has changed since then. … We’re trying to bring some new philosophical points of view.”
“THE LAST TIME ANYONE WAS EXCITED ABOUT EMAIL WAS 16 YEARS AGO.”
The core insight of Hey is that, after 16 years of Gmail and Outlook and years more of Hotmail and other services before that, we now have a good idea of what email actually is. And in Hey’s view, email is basically three things. It’s things you need to respond to, things you want to read, and receipts. Each gets their own home within the app, and basically nothing else is welcome.
All of this is in keeping with one of the new philosophical points of view Basecamp wanted to bring to Basecamp, which is that not too many people should email you. When someone first sends a message to your Hey.com email address, it arrives in a holding pen for first-time senders. At your leisure, you can browse the various human beings, newsletters, and marketing messages all hoping for a spot in your inbox. From there you can decide where they belong — or that they don’t belong in your email at all. With a click of a thumbs-down button, the sender disappears forever. (Unless you take pity on them and restore them to the inbox via a setting elsewhere in the app.)
“You actually get less email — that’s the thing we’re trying to get to,” Fried says.
But with Hey, you don’t just decide what comes into your inbox — you decide where it should go. If you screen a first-time sender in, by default they’ll go to Hey’s inbox — which, for absolutely no good reason, Hey calls the Imbox. (It’s short for “important box,” and no thank you.)
Email from friends, family, and coworkers you’ll likely want to keep in the Imbox. All unread email appears on top, and previously read email sits underneath in reverse-chronological order. Gmail asks you to archive old emails and search them if you need to; Hey keeps everything in full view, giving the whole concept of Inbox Zero a fat middle finger.
A lot of necessary email consists of receipts, shipping notifications, and other ephemera, and Hey lets you filter all that into a section called “Paper Trail.” And for longer reads, like editorial newsletters or electronic catalogs, there’s a section called “The Feed” designed to let you browse: the email inbox as RSS reader.
But what about emails that actually require a response? Those messages get their own section, too. Below every email is one button that says “reply now,” and a second labeled “reply later.” Click the latter one and the message gets added to an attractive pile at the bottom of your Imbox. When you’re ready to reply, click the reply-later stack to see your emails that need responses in a clever side-by-side view called “focus and reply,” with the original in one pane and your response in another. The setup allows you to plow through a big stack of emails quickly, and it’s a significant improvement on the hopscotching around that Gmail and Outlook require.
The final category Hey makes space for is emails that, for whatever reason, you want to have close at hand. Maybe it’s a movie ticket, or a boarding pass, or a receipt. You can mark the message to be “set aside” and it will show up in a dedicated viewer when you need it.
Hey also has a file viewer to see every attachment in your inbox, which seems like something Gmail might have thought to build in the past 16 years. (Outlook did.) Click “All Files” and you’ll see the attachments people have sent you in reverse chronological order, which is hardly revolutionary but could be a revelation for Gmail users. (One quibble: you can’t preview a file by clicking it; instead a click on the thumbnail image will download the file to your computer.)
If you’re a labels person, you can add labels to create custom groupings for your emails. But there are no stars, flags, or other ways of differentiating your emails, because in Hey’s opinion those are “workaround hacks that can mean one of a million things,” Fried told me. Reply or reply not: there is no star, and there is no flag.
Another nice touch in Hey is a feature called Clippings. If you see something in an email that you like, you can highlight it, and it will be added to a collection of other highlights that you can view at any time. (Think Kindle highlights, but for email.) It’s nothing you couldn’t do in a plain text file, but I can see it becoming a lovely archive for digital packrats — particularly for those reading a lot of newsletters in their inboxes. Or you could just use it for quick access to confirmation numbers and other handy details.
Because it’s a soup-to-nuts email platform and not just a new user interface for Gmail or Exchange, Hey can do other strange and powerful things. You can merge disparate email threads into one for easier browsing, for example. (It won’t affect the way the recipient views the email on their end.) Or you can change the subject line of an email to something more useful to you, without changing it for the person you’re corresponding with.
“MOST APPS THINK THEY’RE THE CENTER OF THE WORLD.”
Hey has other opinions. It blocks all tracking pixels, disabling read receipts and other surveillance. It will insist that you use two-factor authentication, for example — and via QR code, too; none of that insecure SMS business. It will let you try it out before charging you, but only for 14 days. Its apps will not notify you of any new email at all unless you tell them to, and Hey is so wonderfully skeptical about the idea of email generally that you’ll have to enable notifications on a per-sender basis.
“Most apps think they’re the center of the world. They’re the most important thing in the world. They’ve got to push everything to you,” Fried says. “We’re not that important.”
Hey isn’t the first independent email platform to arrive since Gmail; privacy-focused ProtonMail, for example, has been open to the public since 2016. Silicon Valley has lately been enamored of Superhuman, a $30-a-month service that uses Gmail’s servers to provide a speedy alternate interface. (It is also still in closed beta after six years, reinforcing the idea that it’s a country club for the most self-important emailers in business.)
Hey is less expensive than Superhuman, but it’s much more expensive than a Gmail or Outlook.com account. And stodgy as those giants are, they also come with developer ecosystems full of extensions that can replicate various aspects of Hey’s offering. You could also opt into one of many services that re-skins Outlook or Gmail, such as Mailplane, Airmail, or Newton (no relation to the author).
But I’m not sure any of them match Hey for its sheer audacity. Basecamp is just 56 people, and in two years, they spun up an email platform and built six native clients — iOS, Android, web, Mac, Windows, and Linux. After frequent promotion by Fried and his co-founder, David Heinemeier Hansson — they have more than 650,000 Twitter followers between them — more than 50,000 people have joined a waiting list to try Hey. Over the next few weeks, they’ll let people in off the waiting list to begin using it.
“IT’S THE MOST AMBITIOUS THING WE’VE EVER DONE.”
Fried is under no illusions that he is about to crush Gmail. “It’s the most ambitious thing we’ve ever done,” he says. “And also, I would say, the stupidest thing we’ve ever done — in, like, the most positive sense of the word. We’re just saying we want to provide an alternative. We want to do some things that we think fundamentally need to be done to solve email.”
Unlike most founders I’ve spoken with, Fried says he’ll be happy if Hey can attract 100,000 customers. A version for businesses will launch later with features for teams, and could help Hey expand beyond an initial audience of Basecamp cultists and productivity nerds.
In the meantime, Hey is giving email users everywhere some fresh new ideas to consider. And it’s giving the tech giants something they desperately need: competition.