Inside the life, death, rebirth, failure and resurrection of a beloved email app
When Essential announced it was killing Newton, a longtime superfan decided he'd rather buy it than watch it die. Again.
Justin Mitchell tried to buy the Newton email app for years. As CEO of Yac, "my whole life runs in my email app," he said. "Having a good email app is as important to me as having a good laptop." He'd tried them all, and Newton was his favorite — the clean design, the easy login on multiple devices, the support for tracking and signatures. It was the only app that had all the features Mitchell needed, especially circa 2015, when good email apps were even harder to come by.
In April, Mitchell finally got his way: He and Maitrik Kataria are now the co-owners of CloudMagic, the parent company (and original name) of Newton. The sale comes after years of turmoil for the company and the app, which has been through multiple owners while stagnating as a product. More than one company went out of business before figuring out how to make Newton work. So when Mitchell and Kataria announced the acquisition on Monday, they made a very clear promise: Newton's back. And they'll never let it die again.
The short, chaotic history of Newton begins with its founding as something other than an email app. "The idea was very simple," creator Rohit Nadhani told me in 2016. "We were going to be Google Desktop Search, but for all your cloud files." It would crawl your email, your Evernote, your Google Docs, your Dropbox, all in one search box. But Nadhani and his team quickly realized that most of what people were looking for was actually in their emails.
"You don't go back to your Facebook feed, even if somebody has shared a recipe," Nadhani said. "It's more like real time. But if something has been shared on email, you continuously go back." In building an email search engine, the CloudMagic team had built most of an email client — so they finished it, relaunched in 2013 as an email service, and took off.
It was August 2018 when Nadhani announced that Newton was shutting down. It had 40,000 subscribers paying $50 a year for the app, and over 4 million users in total, but Nadhani wrote that "the market for premium consumer mail apps is not big enough, and it faces stiff competition from high-quality free apps from Google, Microsoft and Apple." A few months later, Andy Rubin's Essential announced it had acquired CloudMagic. In February 2019, Nadhani announced Newton was available again, sort of: Under Essential's watch, Newton saw few changes or updates, and it seemed to be left for dead.
"That's the part of the story that makes zero sense to me," Mitchell said. "Why did Essential acquire them for such a large sum, and then do literally nothing with it for an entire year?"
Actually, a lot of things about Newton's history don't make sense to Mitchell. The company had always been clear about its issues, but rarely about its solutions. It didn't engage much with its community. Most of all, Mitchell said, Newton should have taken its business out of the app stores. "They lost 30% revenue right off the bat by keeping their subscriptions in the app store," he told me. By the beginning of 2020, even Mitchell had become disillusioned with Newton, moving himself and his team off the app.
But a month later, in February, Essential announced it was shutting down and offloading its assets. Mitchell saw an opportunity to keep his favorite email app alive, and maybe fix a few of its mistakes. He sent Rubin an email begging him to sell Newton, then emailed Nadhani asking the same question. Only Nadhani replied, saying he had nothing to do with CloudMagic anymore, but to email Rubin. So Mitchell tried that again, again to no response.
On March 16, Mitchell got an email from someone at Sherwood Partners, the company Essential had hired to offload its assets. Subject line: "Opportunity to Acquire Assets of Essential Products." Everything Essential made — its phones, its software, its IP — was up for sale. Mitchell replied that he didn't care about any of that, he just wanted Newton. Suddenly they were negotiating. "He sent us a Google Drive with all the info," Mitchell said, "and we went from there."
Justin Mitchell (left) and Maitrik Kataria are the new co-owners of CloudMagic, the parent company (and original name) of Newton.Photo: Courtesy of Justin Mitchell and Maitrik Kataria
For weeks, Mitchell, Kataria and their lawyers asked questions. How much did CloudMagic cost to run? How much tech debt had accumulated? They were told CloudMagic had other bidders — Mitchell said he knows of one for sure — but felt confident in their chances, because Essential was putting so much time into responding to their questions. Still, after lots of phone calls and file sharing, they were told they weren't the highest bidder.
So Mitchell reached out to Rubin again, pleading from one entrepreneur to another to sell the service to people who would take care of it, not some private equity firm or company that would bury the tech. Again, no response from Rubin. But shortly after, they got an email from Sherwood that they'd been selected. Mitchell said he can't say for sure that his email to Rubin swayed the vote in his favor, but he can't say it didn't.
Unfortunately for Mitchell and Kataria, that wasn't the end of the process. They ran into complications with Apple's App Store — starting with Apple rejecting their developer account because the company owned the Newton trademark. "Which they don't!" Mitchell said. (Apple abandoned the trademark in 2013.) They had to rename the company and set up new entities and bank accounts. Ultimately, they decided to just buy the whole CloudMagic company instead. "Before that, we did $18,000 worth of legal work," Mitchell said, "that actually amounted to nothing."
While negotiating, the buyers asked Essential to extend the deadline for the death of Newton, so the app wouldn't shut down completely. They put a banner inside the app for existing users, declaring it wasn't shutting down after all.
By mid-April, everything was done, and the new CloudMagic was up and running. (Mitchell wouldn't divulge the final price, saying it was confidential.) As part of the deal, Mitchell and Kataria had asked for 40 hours of time with the existing Newton team, to help them parse the app's millions of lines of code and understand how it worked. "That way," Mitchell said, "we get to do some training, just so we're not coming into this whole thing blind." They moved subscriptions out of the app stores and onto their website. Crucially, they set up a community page where users could talk about bugs and feature requests.
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Going forward, Mitchell said his hope is to make some smart changes to the app. They'll do dark mode, he said, and make it work better with the iPad's cursor, plus he has some ideas about how Newton could work for teams. And he's very excited about integrating a calendar.
When I asked about the price — even back in 2016, at the height of Newton's popularity, Nadhani had told me he was worried there weren't enough people willing to spend $50 a year on email apps — Mitchell said that, actually, the world has kind of come around. Superhuman is $30 a month and very popular; Spark and others charge fees, too. People will pay for a good email experience, he said. He just has to make sure he offers one.
Nadhani had told me in our conversation in 2016 that his hope was to "out-cockroach everyone" in the email market. Now, that's Mitchell's plan: He wants to make sure he can keep using Newton forever. He and Kataria have promised that if they ever go out of business, they'll open-source the Newton code so the product can outlive them. But Mitchell said he's pretty sure the business can work. "It's not a giant hole in the ground, but it's not a unicorn," he said. "The goal is to get it to a point where it can just sit, and exist, and run."