Maybe Hillary Clinton had the right idea.
The idea of a personal email server may be forever associated with Clinton’s infamous email woes, but the technology — which takes email out of the cloud services that most of us use and puts it into a physical drive in your home — is sound. There are a lot of advantages to running your own email server, privacy being the main one. But, to most, it just sounds like such a hassle.
Not so with Helm, a triangular-shaped email server that aims to make setting up a personal email server as easy as adding an Amazon Echo to your kitchen counter. With the Helm, your email is no longer floating in the cloud somewhere. Instead, it’s physically in your home — still accessible from anywhere, but only by you and people whom you trust.
It’s hardly a revolutionary idea, but up till now personal email servers have been the domain of security buffs and various public figures: people with the knowledge or resources to set one up. Helm wants to make the benefits of personal email servers accessible to all, regardless of skills or means.
It’s a solid idea. But the company’s ethos is even more compelling. Backed by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s Initialized Capital to the tune of $2 million (total seed investment: $4 million), Helm’s mission is to chart a path to taking back our digital identity from the cloud. Over the past two decades, we’ve migrated much our digital lives online, but that’s left our information in the hands of companies like Google and Facebook. And if the past year has shown anything, we don’t really know how are data is being used, or how it’s protected.
“The big tech companies today have been co-opted into a tremendous amount of government surveillance,” Giri Sreenivas, CEO of Helm, explained during a demo of the Helm at Mashable’s offices. “In addition to that, they do their own corporate surveillance. They’re looking for how they can monetize their users’ data and their users’ online behavior.”
Taking email back
Helm wants to change that, starting with email. The email server, which is about the size and shape of a large hardcover book, opened to a page in the middle and placed face-down, costs $499. The product has 128GB of built-in storage, and it has a tray to add more, up to 5TB. There’s no fan — it’s passively cooled.
In a demo at Mashable’s offices, Sreenivas showed me the Helm email server and how to set one up. Like a mesh router, you start by plugging in the server and downloading the app, which walks you through the process, step by step. It mostly involves filling out various fields, picking a domain name (one’s included, but you can roll your own, too), and waiting for the server to verify itself with the Helm service. It probably took about 5 minutes, but if you need to register a domain name it’ll probably take a little longer.
An important step is creating a security key. And by security key, I mean a physical, metallic key that’s included in the box. It connects to the USB-C port that’s beneath a small removable cover on the top.The server automatically encrypts your email so even if someone gets physical access, they can’t access the data without the key. The server will also create a backup key that you can keep on your phone.
But what if you lose your key and your phone? Helm will offer the ability to create multiple keys, on other devices.
Putting your email on a single device means you have a single point of failure, but Helm mitigates the risk: If the device is stolen or damaged, the company will overnight a new server to you, and you’ll be able to restore from an (also encrypted) online backup. If power goes out in your home, that will prevent you from sending and receiving emails, though caching and syncing will. Helm will also eventually offer a Stage 2 service where you can have two servers, in different locations, mirroring each other for redundancy.
Once it’s set up, the server is compatible with any email client that works with IMAP mail, including Apple Mail, Microsoft Outlook, and whole bunch of others. It will walk you through migrating your email from a cloud service like Gmail, and adding family members with their own addresses is trivial.
Subscribing to peace of mind
The bad news: The Helm turns having an email account into a subscription service, costing you $99 per year. Because of course it does: The syncing and security services have an associated cost, and certainly there are the requisite feature updates and bug fixes.
The mainstream audience Helm is going for might balk at the idea of paying a recurring fee to use email, but Sreenivas points out that the free email service you’re using isn’t really free — it’s just subsidized by the personal data you’re giving up to the service provider. Sorry, customer: turns out you were the product all along.
The other downside: Walling off your email, by its nature, means you’re cutting yourself off from advanced email tools like Gmail’s smart replies or even a decent search experience. However, Sreenivas says it’s not as much as you might think.
“One of the things that we have seen that’s fundamentally different about running a server 20 years ago versus running a server today is what we can do with mobile applications. We can provide experiences where people can have this degree of ownership and control without experiencing significant trade-offs.”
The distinctive triangular form factor of the Helm, devised by NewDealDesign, isn’t just a gimmick. It’s designed to be modular, with future products — such as an IoT hub, VPN, media server, and more — docking to the email server via the USB-C port up top, stacking like V-shaped pancakes.
The ultimate vision: your digital life returns directly to your control, with your personal data under physical lock and key, in your own home, only shared on your terms. It’s an idea that has a lot more resonance today than it did 3-4 years ago as we’ve all gotten more skeptical of the “free” digital services we use every day. If you’re sick of feeling like the product, the Helm sounds like a good first step toward feeling like the customer again.