Most people use free email services like yahoo, gmail or live. Unfortunately all the nice sounding email addresses are taken by now so new users have to come up with strange combinations like email@example.com. That’s very hard to remember and it sounds very unprofessional.
Having an online presence is no longer such a big deal. With a few dollars a year you can get your own .com (or other top-level-domain) and another few dollars a month get you a hosting plan which provides you a couple megabytes for website storage and a number of email accounts. So with a small investment you can have a decent email like firstname.lastname@example.org . That’s something that you could put on your personal business card. Few know that you can skip the email service offered by your webhost and instead use a more reliable service.
Both Microsoft and Google offer domain email hosting as a free service. Microsoft calls this Windows Live Custom Domains ( https://domains.live.com/ ) while Google calls it’s service Google Apps ( http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/group/index.html )
Using these services is quite simple. You just have to prove that you are indeed the owner of the domain and make some DNS modifications so that emails will be handled by Google or Microsoft. Modifying the DNS records is a process that can be made using the web interface set up by your hosting provider (the one that hosts your DNS records) or by directly edition your DNS configuration in case you manage the DNS yourself. Either way both Microsoft and Google give you directions on how and what to modify.
For the tech savvy readers there are 2 basic steps: add a CNAME record containing a random string to prove that you are the rightful owner and then modify the MX records with the one provided in the instructions. It’s not that complicated.
Why should you do this?
Well both Microsoft and Google provide a better service than a normal hosting company when it comes to reliability. Sure, you don’t sign a contract that mentions any SLA but statistically speaking both offer a kick-ass service. You don’t have to worry about backups, downtime, spam and so on. It just works. For small operations, say personal email or small companies like startups , this kind of service is ideal as it cuts costs and/or gives less headaches.
Using the administration page you can create, delete or reset any email account. If someone messes up his/hers password you can simply reset the account.
By using either the Microsoft based service or the Google one you get access to other related services like Office Online or Google Docs because the created email accounts serve as Live IDs or Google Accounts. This opens a new world of online collaboration. I know a few startups that use these kind of services.
What are the downsides?
You don’t own your email (carefully read the EULA’s ) and some may not like this.
You are limited to 50 or 100 email accounts and when you hit that limit you have to upgrade to a paid service. Individuals and small companies will just ignore this.
The web mail interface will display ads just as gmail.com or live.com. Adblocker type software could make this a non-issue.
You get little to no tech support. This can be neglected by individuals or small companies considering the advantages.
Access to the email account is made either by browser or by email client. Google Apps email can be accessed by POP3, IMAP and webmail. Unfortunately Windows Live Custom Domains does not offer access using the IMAP or POP3 protocols. To use Outlook you need to install a small piece of software called Office Outlook connector. The advantage of this approach is that besides email you can synchronize your address book and calendars. The IMAP and POP3 protocols don’t allow that. For Thunderbird + live you need a plugin but you get only basic service : get/send emails, no calendar 🙁 .
With 9$ a year you could get a .com domain. You just need a public DNS server to host your records and that’s it, you can sign up for free email hosting.
Regarding DNS hosting, this is really not an issue. http://freedns.afraid.org/ is a very good option. If you don’t like it you could always ask your geek friend to help you out.
It’s hard to tell which service is best. Right now I’m using both Live Custom Domains and Google Apps and I’m quite happy with either one. It all depends on what you want to achieve.
After a year or more of using Goggle Apps I’m thinking of decommissioning all of my postfix installs (yes postfix is better than qmail) and switching to one of the above options. Having a full blown email server (even if it’s just a virtual machine with just enough resources serving many domains by means of sql and virtual domains) seems more and more a waste of time and resources for small operations.
I have a gut feeling that more and more companies will outsource the email service. I’ve seen this happening on a large scale in a few Universities in Romania. The Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies is using Google Apps to offer email accounts to all it’s students ( that’s more than 20.000 accounts!). Likewise there’s a small implementation of Live @EDU , a Microsoft programme that basically does the same thing, in the Faculty of Automatic Control and Computers at the POLITEHNICA University in Bucharest (that’s about 3000 accounts, give or take).