Email options

In this post, I thought I’d discuss personal email, specifically where to host it and some thoughts around what to look for.

There are a plethora of email options out there.   An informal survey indication that most folks use either the email address provided by their ISP (e.g., comcast.com, verizon.net, rr.net) or one of the major “free” players (e.g., gmail.com, yahoo.com).  The are still others who use their work email address.   So what’s the right answer?  To get to that, let us first discuss some of the major options.  First, using your work email:

Really?  You’re still using your work email for personal email?  No offense, but even of you own your own business, this has potentially negative implications.   15 to 20 years ago, using work email for personal use was the prominent method for email.   However, corporate email has changed in some very significant ways, especially within the context of US legal requirements.   Today, for larger corporations, all email messages (and IMs, voice mail and social networking interactions for that matter) are archived and are available for potential discovery in a law suit.  This means that the risqué jokes that your buddy insists upon sending you could be discovered and used in a sexual harassment lawsuit.  Also, most companies today have policies prohibiting personal use of emails and  they enforce these policies if they find something potentially embarrassing or detrimental.   Also, do you really want your boss reading the details of your love life or results of your colonoscopy?

OK … Got it … I’m on Comcast, who gives me several email accounts as part of the service.  I’ll just use that!    This makes sense in that ISP email is secure and dependable (especially from the big boys).   However, there is one serious shortcoming.  If you change service providers (e.g. You move) or they get bought and get subsumed into another company, you’ll likely find that you don’t have access to this address any longer.   Given your primary email address is becoming like your phone number, it’s  used to identify you for on-line (and some off-line) accounts, you really need an email address that doesn’t change.  So I’d recommend you not use this as your primary email account.

Oi … Really? … So, what about Gmail or Yahoo?   These are also secure and reasonably dependable.  My concern is their definition of “free”.  This type of provider gets paid by targeted advertisements.  How do they target the ads?  They have software that reads your messages, picking up keywords that they use to target specific ads.  I’m also a musician.  I send an email  that contains the word “percussion” and my email reader suddenly has ads for on-line music retailers,  Did you know you having an account with Google is worth $24 to them due to your personal data?   They all claim that they are good stewards of this data, but personally I find this to be a slippery slope.  Think about it … They only use this information to make revenue!

The other problem with free is that there is no service guarantee.  This can effect you in two ways; First, the service could be unavailable frequently and/or at inconvenient times.  Second and potentially more difficult, they could lose your emails or you can find yourself locked out of your account with no way to get back in.   Free providers aren’t inclined to provide sufficient backups of this data.  Further with email, they typically off-load older posts to powered down or off-line storage, risking inability to recover the data.  If you archive all your email on your PC or Mac, this is less of an issue, but as more folks leave their emails in the Cloud for access on multiple devices, loss could be catastrophic.

So, what the the requirements for your email services:
  • Need at least one email address that sticks with you and you can use as an identifier.
  • Need to be able to access  email servers in a secure manner, especially accounts with potentially sensitive information.
  • Besides a web interface, the service should provide alternative protocols for downloading and managing email from mail clients on your computers and mobile devices.  There are two primary protocols:
    • Post Office Protocol or POP – This protocol only manages your inbox and basically has two options: (a) Keep email after it’s downloaded to your client or (b) leave it on the server after downloading it.
    • Internet Mail Access Protocol or IMAP – This more advanced protocol allows email to be sync’d between various clients and the email server.  Also, it permits managing and sync’ing folders.  If you have devices to synchronize and/or you want to manage folders, then IMAP is a requirement.
  • Needs to be robust and perform well
  • Client access via secure protocols such as secured IMAP.  (Secure protocols encrypt the path between your device or PC and the mail server, which makes accessing email using public WIFI safer).
  • Reasonable expectation that your email will be secure on the providers servers and will not be used by the provider.  Note: Email flying around the Net is inherently insecure unless the message body is encrypted.  Securing access and data at rest is incremental but not a completely secure solution.
  • Spam filtering
  • Finally, be sure the provider provides enough storage.   If you are using multiple clients to access your email (e.g., PC, iPhone, Tablet, Webmail), then you’ll likely want to leave all your email on the provider’s servers.   This can reach several GBs.
Also, consider having multiple email addresses for specific purposes:
  • Alumni address — If you’ve graduated from college, you’ll likely have access to an alumni account.  These forward-only accounts are permanent, hence good accounts for use as an identifier.
  • Personal address — This account is used for all email that you exchange with folks you know.  To prevent spam on this account, you shouldn’t use it for any mailing lists, commercial email (e.g., email at your local dry cleaner) or when a non-friend or non-relative wants your email address.
  • Identifier address — This is an account that will be used as your identifer for a host on-line services, and the underlying email address even if you use an login name.  Some folks use an alumni address for this purpose.  Others use their personal address, though you might find you’ll get some spam.
  • Throwaway address — This address is for all those mailing lists and other places where your account could be sold or used for sending unrequested emails, AKA Spam.  Though most folks probably don’t need one of these, if you like to signup for blogs, newsletters and other mail and accounts that you don’t know how they will treat your address, having a separate address is good hygiene.  This temporary address can be deactivated and moved to a different address if the unwanted email becomes excessive.  Note: If you signup for this blog, your email address will not be provided to others.
Finally, a comment on marketing email or spam:   In the 21st century, spam is something we need to actively deal with as well as tolerate.   Most reputable e-commerce services have a policy for sending marketing emails and providing your address to others for marketing.  As part of this policy, they give you the ability to manage this.  This requires that you explicitly uncheck the check boxes when signing up for something.  Also, in some cases (not all), you’ll be able to uncheck these options in your profile/account section.
So, what are the options here???   I think they fall into the follow categories:
  • Free services– The large free services like Google and Yahoo are still viable for many needs.  But if you’re looking for free services, there are several other players that you might consider:
    • iCloud – If you subscribe to Apple’s iCloud (or before that, MobileMe), this service provides ample storage and secure IMAP access.  They don’t keyword match for advertisements. It’s nicely integrated with Apple products.
    • Live Hotmail – This is Microsoft’s email solution.  It also provides ample storage and secure POP access.  It doesn’t offer IMAP, which is unfortunate.  It is well integrated with Outlook.
    • AIM – This is AOL’s email service, which does provide IMAP access, but not folder support.  They have excellent SPAM filtering and the service is easy-to-use and nicely integrated with their IM service AIM.
  • Bundled Services – This is the email capability bundled with your ISP account.  It could also be email bundled with your social networking account (e.g., Facebook).  ISP email accounts are still good options as they have support and usually have secure IMAP access.  Social networking emails are nicely integrated into their primary services, but many are limited in their usability as primary accounts.
  • Services with special features– These are services that have some special feature that makes them more compelling.  They might be free or paid services.
    • Lavabit.com – This service encrypts all emails both at rest and in transit.  They also provide a very robust spam engine and anti-virus.  They do insert advertisements into incoming messages for their free service.  They offer from 1-8 GB of storage.
    • Care2 – This service will contribute 10% of the ad revenue to charity.  The down side is that it is only a web application with no POP or IMAP support.
    • Kidsemail – This service is for kids, with a separate parent login to manage what you kids have access to.  For more kid’s specific email options see this bing search.
  • Paid services – These are services that you pay a yearly fee and in turn you should get support and a clearly defined Service Level Agreement
    • Godaddy – Godaddy provides both a customized domain name for your email as well as enterprise tools and support.  Getting your own domain name makes these addresses good addresses to use as identifiers.  Also, the security and SLA makes this a very good method to secure and manage your email.
    • Fastmail – Their $40/year service provides secure imap, support and the ability to host your own domain.
One note: The various services mentioned this blog posting are examples and not recommendations as I’ve not used them all.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I use Godaddy with our own domain for my family’s primary email addresses for the reasons given.  I also have iCloud, Gmail, Live and alumni accounts which I use for various specific reasons (e.g., I used the Google calendar with my gmail credentials).
For more information about various services, see the about.com article on the top free services.  Also, Leo Notenboom has a very good article on what to look for in paid services.

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