Is this the year your company finally bites the bullet and tries an outsourced business email hosting service?
For business email, you can do it yourself or hire one of the many companies that offer business email hosting services. It's important to understand what you're getting.
Email is serious business these days even for us small time users. I depend on my email for business communications. When an email that I send does not show up in a timely fashion, it is a problem.
When I left the Fortune 500 world and the well managed email of Apple Computer, I decided that I needed an email account which helped me to market what I was doing. I went searching for a company that provided mail and domain names. I found one locally, Webmail.us. I was so impressed with the ease of setting up the email account and getting the domain registered, that I contacted the CEO, Pat Mathews. We actually got to know each other, and I became impressed enough to invest some money in the company, and eventually work there for a few months helping them build their sales team.
I no longer work there, but I still use their email services for one of my email accounts. I also have email accounts with two Internet Service Providers, the macosx.com people, three web hosting companies, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Bluetie, and for a few more days Everyone.net. That's a lot of email accounts, but in trying these services and in working for Webmail.us I have learned a lot about free and paid email. I have been able to provide some guidance to people trying to solve their email challenges/
I don't think there is one right answer or company for everyone. I do think I can throw out some questions which can help you make an intelligent decision.
First I am going to say something that lots of people might disagree with, but I feel pretty strongly about it. If you are are small or medium sized company, do yourself a favor, try outsourcing your email. It might be one of the smartest technology decisions you make this year.
To elaborate on that suggestion, unless you have a really strong Linux or Unix technical person who you know is going to stay with your organization for several years, don't do email yourself. The economics just do not make sense. A good technical person of the quality required to effectively run a trouble free email system will cost you $75K or more. Even if you do that, you still only have one person, and there are twenty four hours in the day for problems to occur.
Let's assume that you believe your technical person spends one third of their time on email. At this point just ignore the hardware costs. For that $25K you can get over 2,000 one gigabyte email accounts for a year. Depending on what company you use, you can get some exceptional support. All of the email services companies have other valuable features built into their email offerings. It's a very competitive business, and you are going to see more and more features with increasing amounts of storage for the same or less money each year. That increasing value for your dollars is very hard to duplicate if you are investing your own money in hardware, software, and people. You'll likely install something and live with it and until it comes close to breaking.
I think email is more mission critical these days than that.
By outsourcing your email services, you could also free your technical person up to do things which help you make money instead of just having them worry about something which if it breaks is going to cost you a lot of time, money, and customer satisfaction.
The biggest challenge that I see for small and medium size companies is that managing email services is becoming more and more complicated. I recently got a call from a small business owner. He had under twenty email accounts. His technical person who had plenty of other work to do, had been managing their email services with an in house server and an expensive spam appliance. When I talked to the owner, he personally was getting over one million spam emails a day. This had completely bogged down their email system. It was taking over a day to process the email queue. They finally just had to pull the server off line while they made the decision on whether to add yet another expensive spam appliance or to consider another solution.
Since I was very comfortable with their services, I sent the owner to Webmail.us . I talked to him by chat a few days later to see how things were working. He was excited to report that his problem had been solved with just few email accounts and some email aliasing. He had spent not much over $100 compared to the thousands that he was planning to throw at the problem.
So what are my recommendations given the free and paid email services solutions that are out there?
First if email is really important to you, and you have limited technical resources, pay for your email. It is dirt cheap and one of the best bargains around. If you choose your email hosting company well, you'll get help when you need it, and you might need it up front if you are using a pre-existing domain. Companies that do email well know how to walk you through changing the MX records of your domain or actually taking over the management of your domain.
If you are a small company and have some technical expertise, Google apps for you domain will cost you nothing, but your support is going to be what you find on the web. If there is a way to get a question answered from Google, I haven't figured it out yet. The biggest problem that I have found with Google and Gmail is that it isn't IMAP.
I am a huge believer in IMAP which many of email companies can explain better than I can. However, the simple explanation is that IMAP allows each user to access their mail from multiple computers with a mail client. They see the same folder structure on multiple computers and have everything synchronized without jumping through a lot of hoops. You can access Gmail through a web browser from multiple computers and see the same thing, but it does not synchronize easily on multiple computers with regular clients because it is POP based mail.
While you may be used to POP as the way to get your email. You really should think about switching to IMAP if you're going to do an email switch.
While Microsoft's products like OfficeLive offer some of the same features as Google apps for your domain, I have not found them as mature. I sent some trial notifications out for new accounts. It took them a couple of days to be received. I'll continue to use and monitor the progress of the Microsoft solutions, but right now I wouldn't bet my business on them.
Bluetie offers free accounts if you are willing to have your email to be something at bluetie.com . In this day of each company trying to get noticed, I can't see that saving $15 or $20 in annual domain registration fees is a very smart move. I look at it more as someone just not getting how important it is for your company to be recognized effectively through each email mail that goes out. If you are something or the other at bluetie.com, you're doing some good advertising for them, which is why they are willing to let you have the email for free. The Bluetie email does look very good, has some great features and in the limited trials that I have had with it, seems to perform well.
Neither Everyone.net or Webmail.us offers free email accounts, though Webmail.us does offer two weeks free trial. To be honest, I used my Everyone.net account very minimally but I had no problems with it, other than I just tried to cancel if three days ago, and I have yet to get a confirmation from them.
So what questions do you need to ask about email services companies? First ask what the support policies are. You might even send the company an email just to see how responsive they are. It is pretty easy to set up a speedy online registration process even when it includes a domain registration. It is much more difficult to provide adequate staff twenty four hours a day to provide timely responses to your email questions.
I have one email account that I have been using for years from an organization that provides Mac support. About once a year there are problems. I have yet to ever have them answer an email about problems. Fortunately their problems have never been serious and as I said, I have no shortage of email accounts.
Still if you are betting your business, you want someone who can answer your email questions quickly. The biggest challenge that I see with most companies when evaluating email solutions is that they wait until something breaks and the CEO is having a tantrum. Then you are often shoved into the shoe of whichever email company can get you up and running the quickest. That may or may not translate to the company with the best long term support.
Start evaluation on email services before you have a problem so you can get some commitments on support availability and even have time to test some things. While you are doing that you might also check to see if the company guarantees their service and what they do if they have a problem.
One of the critical elements that sometimes gets lost is that while most companies do a pretty good job of providing a webmail interface, if you have users who are dedicated Thunderbird, Outlook, or Apple Mail users, you might run into some glitches. You should ask up front what email clients the company supports. You might also want to check on browser compatibility with their webmail client. If you have some Firefox Linux users and some Apple Safari users, it's nice to know up front that they will be happy campers.
The next thing is that not all webmail interfaces are the same. Some are speedy and some aren't. Often you don't find that out until you have seriously spent some time with their email product. One of the hosting companies that I contract uses a product called Sitemail. I was searching for an email in the Sitemail webmail interface and it took far longer than it should have. The guys at Webmail.us spoiled me a little on that as they have made AJAX a big part of their webmail interface so search and a lot of other things are almost as quick as they are in regular clients.
Really the only way to figure out that works on a particular product is to try it. The search on Gmail is very fast also, but I don't have enough email in my Bluetie account to really give them a good test. So remember when it comes to webmail interfaces, it is Caveat emptor or let the buyer beware. Try before you buy.
I seriously doubt that there is any company out there where you can't test their webmail interface before you buy into the product. I strongly suggest you do that. In fact if you have a couple of hundred accounts to move, some of the companies might provide you with a demo account so you can see exactly what you go through in setting up the email accounts. Usually all that involves is creating the email address and giving it a password. I have not looked into it at Bluetie, but I know that Webmail.us when I was there provided a migration service for an extra fee. That could include moving existing mail from one server to another or it could be just moving accounts and their passwords.
Migration can be a messy business, but a lot of the time you can avoid migration by making sure users have a local copy of their mail on their systems.
What about SPAM. I have found Gmail, Webmail.us, and Sitemail to be very good with spam. I did not have a large enough volume of mail to test spam capabilities at Bluetie, Microsoft, or Yahoo. The simplest thing is to ask what they do about spam. I believe that spam changes so rapidly that a company needs to have someone dedicated full time to making certain the company is on top of the latest in Spam. For all I know Google has a team of people, but when you can talk to a person before you sign up, find out exactly how the company plans to keep protecting their customer from the increasingly sophisticated spammers.
The reality is that email is a service which most small and medium sized businesses can effectively hire someone else to do for less than they can do it themselves. In the bargain you will likely get more reliable email with more features. To add frosting to the cake, it will be managed and watched twenty four hours a day if you pick your company correctly. Email companies take their business very seriously. I am willing to bet they do a better job of backing up email servers than almost any small IT shop.
I have only given you the names of companies with which I have some familiarity, but you can get a great list just by Googling "business email hosting services." Check out their references or customer testimonials. Try their services and be ready to be pleased with what you find. Outsourcing your email services is a great technology decision for the start of 2007.