Monday, March 1, 2010

Mailinator and (not) Death-by-Popularity

As far as I know, Mailinator was the first website of its kind. A website to accept any email at all, no sign-up, no registration. Obviously, email websites surely existed before but not with this "no one owns any account" twist. And what a twist it turned out to be. Check out the original web page in 2003 at the Wayback Machine (including the "its like flicking a booger at spam!" original tagline!)

Needless to say, copycat websites showed up fast. And that's a decent indicator that a new idea is a good one. Or at least an interesting one. As I've (and many others have) said before ideas by themselves are basically worth nothing. And any good idea is destined be copied, stolen, and taken credit for. Execution is the key.

If you don't believe me - here is part of Mailinator's terms of service present on every inbox page:

"You agree to hold ManyBrain, Inc./Mailinator harmless from any damages caused by loss of emails, content within emails, damage to your computer or innocence from viewing emails, direct or indirect use of this system, or anything else you can think of. Use at your own risk."

I wrote those words a bunch of years ago. I'm no lawyer so I tried to come up some simple words to get the message across.

Now. Go to google and search on (quoted) "computer or innocence". Here's a screen shot of what I got.



Almost all entries on this page are Mailinator copycat services that not only "borrowed" the idea of Mailinator - a few even "borrowed" its terms of service !! Talk about uncreative copying. :)

For the public record - again, I'm no lawyer so if you unauthorizedly copied my terms of service and get in trouble - you can't blame me.

Now keep in mind here - theft of ideas is all part of the game. It is, for better or worse, part of human nature. And as I outlined here - the execution and evolution of Mailinator was mine, but the idea of no-sign-in email wasn't. It was my old roommate's (who at times, has helped out on Mailinator copy and such).

Google didn't invent the idea of internet search. Facebook didn't start the social web. They just made it better or more usable - or something. But they won. Sometimes taking a great idea and twisting it just a little, turns it into something great.

Mailinator however is an interesting beast. It is a hard business to monetize. And that's just fine, so long of course, it doesn't cost a ton to run.

But therein lies the rub.

There's a strong sentiment in the web industry that performance, at many levels, doesn't matter. That you simply can "buy another server" and solve many performance problems. And that's true. And generally that's a good idea. I mean, wasting a lot of developer time (who could instead be creating new features) on performance optimization is dubious. Especially if you can throw down 2 or 3 thousand dollars and simply buy another machine to solve the problem.

I wrote here that the initial incarnation of Mailinator started to die at around 800,000 emails per day. If you want to make a Mailinator copy - its really not very hard. You can do it with almost all off-the-shelf (and free) software. Sendmail to receive and some sort of webmail front-end to view.

That's it. And that's largely what Mailinator was when it started and it took about a weekend to setup.

But then... I ran into that 800,000 a day problem. This was a performance problem of epic proportions. That is, the site was perpetually crashing. I needed a solution.

One solution, as I pointed out was to "buy another server" but that would have cost the 2 grand plus the ongoing monthly cost to pay for it. And Mailinator was not making enough to cover that at all. I would have had to start paying for Mailinator out-of-pocket to keep it going.

And maybe worse - that would have just solved the problem temporarily until I needed yet another server.

So instead, I did the wrong thing. I rewrote the system from scratch. Threw out the off-the-shelf stuff and built a software system that was customized for Mailinator. Again, financially this was a poor decision (i.e. cost of my development time) but luckily Mailinator is a hobby too so I wrote it off as just that.

As soon as I brought up the new software email jumped to 3,000,000 a day. The old system was not only choking at 800,000 it was refusing connections. I then upgraded the network at the time from 10mbs to 100mbs and the email again leaped to 6,000,000 a day. That is, the new software was fast enough to expose that we were now saturating bandwidth.

(Mailinator has now seen >25,000,000 emails per day)

So that's all fun stuff - but remember those copycat services? Over the years, I've seen 3 of them rise in popularity - and then die (as in literally, site gone, blog explaining it became too expensive to run).

That's what I meant when I said Mailinator is an interesting beast. Its a paradigm that's extremely easy to reproduce - so long as you don't actually get popular (or you find a great way to monetize).

Seems like the web has a lot of opportunity for services like this. Cool ideas that in many senses are just too costly to keep running. Then again, the price of tech comes down - and performance increases.

A Sendmail/Webmail Mailinator today on a modest machine could probably handle a fair bit more than 800,000 a day.

Every few years I try to re-evaluate every old idea I dropped because I felt it wasn't technically/financially feasible. There's a perpetual convergence of faster tech and cheaper prices.

New things become feasible every day that weren't feasible yesterday.

Got any ideas?