Free Web Mail and Business: Just Don't Do It

A recent episode with Google's free e-mail service, Gmail, highlights some of the problems with using a free, Web based e-mail system for business. A small number of customers logged into Google to find their mail had been deleted. Google did not have backups.

The free e-mail providers have experienced a renaissance of sorts. Though Google's Gmail is not the most popular, they have led a recent spate of innovation in the space. The Gmail interface provides a richer experience than traditional Web mail systems with fewer page refreshes. The two largest free Web mail providers, Microsoft's Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, have followed suit. Both recently released greatly improved user interfaces.

In addition to these richer user interfaces, Google upped the ante for all e-mail providers by offering 1 gig of storage space. Microsoft and Yahoo quickly matched Google, and the three have been increasing their quota limits ever since.

So, the Web mail systems of 2006 were marked by an enhanced user interface and large storage capacity. For your average personal account, what's not to love? But if you're using free Web mail for your business account, then you may want to think twice.

Google's recent mishap--deleting user's mail--revealed that Google did not have backups. This should not be surprising. Giving everyone gigs worth of storage space is cheap: ensuring that it's backed up is where the true cost is.

Google's response was that they would help restore the messages from personal backups. And, to Google's credit, you can access your mailbox using a standard e-mail client. Many Web mail providers do not offer an offline version: you can only read and compose mail when connected to the Internet. Obviously, this is no good for occasionally connected devices such as handhelds and laptops, but for many users, it's perfectly reasonable.

Google and Microsoft both offer offline access. However, this raises another issue, one trigger, in fact, by the generous amounts of storage space offered by the free Web mail providers.

Many users have reported that the Gmail Web interface gets sluggish when the mailbox actually contains gigs worth of mail. We can not verify this. What we can say, however, is that trying to maintain an offline copy of gigs worth of mail using standard mail protocols is not a realistic option. The Internet mail protocols were simply not designed for this usage scenario.

To put it another way, you will not be able to take advantage of the storage space and maintain your own backups. It's an either-or situation. Without backups, any serious e-mail user should think twice about relying on free Web mail. This problem is compounded by the fact that any provider can cancel or suspend your account at anytime, providing the user with little to no recourse.

Finally, there's the support issue. E-mail can sometimes be a game of he-said-she-said with one service provider blaming another. Spam filters, which sometimes toss away as much as 95% of Internet mail, make the delivery of mail even less reliable.

Sometimes, the only way to resolve a problem is to call up your provider and talk to someone on the phone. If the problem is not obvious, they can have administrator review log files and analyze the transactions between servers at the protocol level. This type of support is simply impossible for a provider offering a free service to millions of customers.

Does this mean that free Web mail should be avoided at all cost? Absolutely not. If you're using a free Web mail provider for your personal account, no problem. Free Web mail is great for casual use as long as you don't require access when offline or backups of your mail. For many users, this is a perfectly reasonable proposition. For business users, however, it should be a non-starter.

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