A buzzword in the popular press is to describe Internet access as something that’s becoming a utility, that people are coming to need in the same way they need their water, electricity and gas. I realised today that a reliable e-mail account also has this status. My primary e-mail account has been my SDF account for about three years, but today I paid for a new FastMail account and started using an e-mail address at a .name domain that I’ve owned for six months or so but haven’t been using outside of git commit messages. I’ll talk about the reasons for this and also some observations about the place of e-mail in my life.

SDF is volunteer-run, and that means that there’s always been quirks to work around. Sometimes the ability to use SSL with the SMTP server disappears for a few weeks, and the IMAP server is too old to work well with isync (an alternative to offlineimap). I’ve always managed to work around these things, since I’ve got a full UNIX shell to play with at the other end so I’ve been able to set up all sorts of wacky encrypted tunnels to get data where I need it to be. I also appreciated being forced to use e-mail in a fairly old-fashioned way. I couldn’t set it up right on my smartphone, so on those occasions when I was tempted to have e-mail on my phone I was given the opportunity to think again and realise that such a level of connection and availability would be bad for me.

Unfortunately, things went wrong over the weekend when a planned migration of the server I had my e-mail on got delayed by more than two days. I had to forward my e-mail to my university e-mail account during this time, and that screwed up my system of archiving my e-mail and reading it offline on my local machine. The migration has not yet occurred and I thought to myself that if this happened during term time at university in a few months time it would be a real pain. It’s quite sad that e-mail has such an important status that I can’t afford to use a volunteer-run service.

I spent the past few days entirely preoccupied with finding an acceptable solution. Abandoning SDF e-mail (though not all their other tools and services, which I intend to keep using) loomed large. I realised that I had to bite the bullet and switch to using my own domain for e-mail. Being tied to SDF by the e-mail address was a large part of the problem. Now, one thing that I was taught by having a 250MB e-mail quota on SDF was that it’s quite possible just to keep your most recent e-mail on your e-mail server, and hold the rest of it in mboxes on your hard drive that can be indexed by a tool like mairix. This gives one a great deal of flexibility in transferring between e-mail providers. So really all I needed was somewhere to collect my recent e-mail and give me IMAP and SMTP access to it. I thought about setting up my own personal e-mail server again as I used to have with a friend. This is nice because you form a real part of the international e-mail network which is open to anyone to add a server to. But since e-mail is a utility, I don’t think I can deal with the responsibility of keeping that server online. And so I chose FastMail primarily because of some very flexible features such as letting me set up separate passwords that can access my account but not lock me out etc. that I can feed to isync and postfix on my local machine.

I’m sad to give up my nice short SDF e-mail address for an ugly .name address, and some people might see it and think I’m pretentious for having e-mail at my own domain. As I said, it’s sad that e-mail is so important in my life that I have to go through with this. And I was made even more sad by just how obsessed with solving this problem I became over the past few days. My mind gave it much too much importance and priority.