FastMail reinvents a slicker, quicker wheel

Date: 08/10/2002
Words: 1400
Publication: The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Computers
Page: 9

E-mail access can be easy - from anywhere.

You could say that the business plan was built on impatience - the sort of impatience a lot of us feel when we're checking our e-mail.

As a management consultant (McKinsey & Company, A.T. Kearney), Jeremy Howard had become all too familiar with the bloody-minded obstructions that Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange can put in the user's path. Even today, he watches his colleagues wasting up to half an hour logging in on a laptop, negotiating servers and synchronising e-mail.

He speculated on the challenges involved in building a fast e-mail service that would be universally accessible. Four years ago, during a rainy January at Somers, overlooking Victoria's Western Port Bay, he spent a couple of days putting together a no-nonsense e-mail client using a Microsoft Access database and an ActiveX control to navigate the POP (Post Office Protocol) transactions with a server.

That was the prototype for FastMail.FM, the Melbourne-based e-mail service ( that is increasingly hailed for its speed and power.

With an old schoolmate, Rob Mueller, Howard spent the next year or so turning it into a Web-based e-mail service, using a MySQL database, and Perl scripting.

He bought the domain name as an easy way to remember the name (the FM denotes the Federated Republic of Micronesia), and set up a Web server at US-based Rackspace.

It's regarded as expensive bandwidth in that country because of the redundancy that last year gave it 100 per cent up-time but it cost roughly 2 per cent of what Telstra charges for its lowest wholesale rate.

FastMail was initially a POP service but then Mueller became interested in IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) and convinced Howard that they should use it. And that's when serious e-mail users - a community that congregates around - started getting increasingly interested in FastMail.FM.

POP's store-and-forward technology is easy for ISPs to administer. The client logs in to the server, downloads all the messages, and generally deletes them immediately from the server - although you might opt to leave a copy there for a few days.

If you only access your mail from a single computer, POP is adequate. But IMAP, developed in 1985 at the Stanford Knowledge Systems Laboratory by Mark Crispin (, is much more talented.

While it still allows you to download your Inbox to your PC, an IMAP service keeps everything on the central server, allowing you to read it from any computer over the Internet. You can filter your messages and direct them to several folders. You can just download the headers and leave the rest on the server. And if you happen to lose your folders in a crash, you'll find them automatically synchronised next time you connect to the server. Even if you decide to delete a folder and then change your mind, FastMail.FM can instantly restore it from its backups.

The bald description doesn't adequately sum up the sophisticated level of management that IMAP facilitates. An IMAP e-mail system can be easily synchronised, replicated and adjusted, and gives the user much more manageability, accessibility and speed than POP.

ISPs have been reluctant to offer IMAP services because of the additional complexity and storage demands and server load. But e-mail is just a part of the ISP package - and one that many find increasingly onerous. For FastMail.FM, e-mail was the entire business, so it represented a significant opportunity.

For three years FastMail.FM ran in "beta" mode, picking up thousands of users around the world, who agreed to give feedback in exchange for free service. In February, it went commercial, adding three levels of enhanced features at rates ranging from $US14.95 ($A27.50) for lifetime membership, to $US39.95 a year for services that include hosting of a domain.

Having invested considerable work and infrastructure costs, the young developers were somewhat anxious to discover the answer to a question that a lot of people ask about Web-based businesses.

A lot of their users had been attracted by the free offering. But would the enhanced services be valuable enough for subscribers to outlay cash for the additional bandwidth and facilities?

It didn't take long to find out. Within months, FastMail was running at a profit. Rob Mueller gave up his full-time job, and they hired a part-time employee, Kirill Miazine, a 20-year-old developer/law student.

Neither Mueller nor Howard had met him, until Howard visited Norway two weeks ago. They also spent some of their profits buying the domain "", after some new users complained that their friends couldn't remember the ".FM" suffix. FastMail.FM now provides more than 80 domains to ensure everyone gets an address to suit them.

For Howard, the success of FastMail has produced a satisfying irony. As an increasing number of companies move their e-mail systems over to FastMail, some of the people with whom he argued for years to give him a good corporate mail service, are now his customers.