Update, January 2013: The Google Apps free account is no longer available. There is no suitable free replacement. My updated recommendation for a paid email service is Microsoft Exchange Online, which works beautifully with Outlook 2007 and later.
The rise of smartphones, with their ability to handle mail, has changed the email landscape forever.
Most people have been satisfied to handle email on their main PC. Laptops and later the so-called ultra-books allowed email to go mobile. But now that smartphones have plenty of storage, are ubiquitous and always present, it makes sense to have email on a phone as well.
The traditional incoming email model has been POP (post office protocol). The name is irrelevant; how it works is not. The general idea behind POP is that it is always downloaded to the receiving device (mail client) and removed from the server. Once off the server, it is no longer accessible by another device; only the original downloading device has the messages on file.
In addition, POP deals only with incoming mail. Outgoing messages are sent via SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol). The sending device has a copy but the SMTP server does not keep the message.
This means the central store for email is one device, most likely a person's primary PC, usually running one email client program.
For multiple devices/clients the key problem is that one client can't know what the other has done. If you send an email from your PC, it is never visible to your phone unless you CC it. And vice versa.
The solution to that problem is IMAP (Internet mail access protocol), specifically designed to allow multiple mail clients to access the mail simultaneously. This is because the mail is stored on the server. Better yet, IMAP can store both incoming and outgoing messages (and maintain other folders as well). All devices/clients see the same thing. You can be out all day with your phone and when you sit in front of your PC in the evening, you'll see all the email activity, in exactly the same state, as it appeared on the phone.
For my small business clients, email has most often been handled as an adjunct to their Web hosting plan. This is fine, but many plans had limits on the amount of storage associated with a single account. When storage is limited, POP is the only way to handle it; these days 100MB for an inbox is tiny and will last just a few months before it is full. When these accounts are not limited, IMAP is an option but a close look at the hosting plan is necessary. For my host, HostGator, just a few IMAP accounts in push mode can eat up the allotted CPU time for the account, cause severe performance problems, and prevent mail from flowing.
In either case, Web hosting companies actually do not want their customers eating up their resources for email. Most have separate plans for email that do not incur performance or space penalties but that do incur additional cost.
There is a solution.
Google Apps for Business
Google has been offering its Apps service for quite a few years now. It has always included Gmail. The Apps version of Gmail differs because it offers nearly four times more storage, about 25GB per account, than the free Gmail account. That's a huge amount. I'm storing 1.6GB of current email (which dates back about three years) and an archive of about 1GB with mail going back to the '90s. The biggest load by any of my clients is 5GB, so Google is offering plenty of room.
Of course, Google Apps is a paid service, $50 per year (or $5 per month) per user. Most of my very small clients won't pay for that. Luckily, Google now offers a limited edition of the Apps software to any entity needing 10 or less accounts. It's free.
The free version, as you might guess, has some limitations. The most important is that the storage capacity is not quite as high, just 10GB. That's still good enough to accommodate all my clients with room to spare. Google provides a chart comparing its three versions of the service.
An important fact to remember about email with this service is that it uses your domain name, not Gmail. In other words, your email addresses will look like email@example.com, not firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is relatively easy to set up Google Apps but there are two technical steps.
- Verify site (domain name) ownership.
- Adjust the DNS name server settings for MX records at either your hosting company or your domain name registrar.
You may need technical assistance with these steps. Google has good documentation on what must be done, but you may find it difficult anyway.
Once everything is configured, every email account must be individually set to use IMAP; by default, they are POP accounts. Once that is done, you'll need to properly configure email clients wherever you want access - your PC, tablet, phone, watch, whatever. Again, Google has good help documents for setting up the most common devices and clients.
Gmail Pros and Cons
In addition to multi-device access, a major advantage of Gmail is its world-class spam detection, perhaps the best anywhere. I've used a number of mail systems over the years and there is no question that spam detection for my personal Gmail account is the best, with a very low rate of false positives.
I have found Gmail to be very fast, with almost no mail delivery latency.
A big plus for the Google Apps solution is detaching the email system from your Web hosting account. In the past couple of years I've moved a lot of hosting accounts from one company to another and the truly tedious part of that work is moving email. With Google, email can stay in one place and your site can move around as needed (for cost, feature, etc.).
There are some downsides. The free accounts are not entirely free; ads are displayed when you use the Web-based tools. In this connection, it appears that Google is scanning the email to help determine what ads to show you, so privacy could be an issue.
Another consideration is that your mail will now be stored in a very big, public email system. It is, indeed, a cloud service and its security is something to consider. If your email content includes such things as medical records or legal documents, it behooves you to get more detail on the security front.
A significant problem exists if you are partial to Microsoft's Outlook email client or, for that matter, most email programs. I speak from experience; when I converted myself to Gmail IMAP I found it very painful. Google, being as it is a search company, organizes email by labels. In one sense this is very powerful because more than one label can be applied to any given message. Outlook is based on folders. These two organizations simply do not mesh, with the result that I was very unhappy with Outlook's presentation of mail after I converted it. I switched back to POP and restored my previous style.
Overall, I'm finding this a very attractive solution under the right circumstances, especially if Outlook is not involved. When money is tight, I don't hesitate to recommend it.