(update Dec 2011: Aliencamel is now more, unfortunately, and Fastmail has been sold to Opera.)
Using free email accounts like Gmail is commonplace, but not without risk. As Loren Baker, an editor at SearchEngine Journal, found to his cost, when Google disabled his account without warning. (At the time of writing there’s no explanation why his account was suspended, nor whether it had been resolved.)
The comments are supportive, but also point out the dangers of relying on a free service for business. This point, in particular, struck home; when it’s “free”, we’re not really the customers, except insofaras we’re the recipient of ads:
[such services] see the money coming from the investors rather than the users. Without monetary payment they are not even “customers”.
So what are the alternatives? Well, hosted email makes a lot of sense. If you’ve got your own domain, better to use that. But there’s also paid email services which, until Gmail came along, were where the smart users usually went.
So I asked a couple of them, AlienCamel and Fastmail, to give me five reasons why paid email services are better than free. Here’s what they had to say:
Here are Sydney Low’s of AlienCamel:
- No ads, no robots crawling through personal stuff
- Email infrastructure is expensive, you get what you pay for
- We backup your emails in US and in Europe
- Our spam blocking technology - pending email advisory - is patented and unique
- We're limiting our growth to 2500 accounts - so it'll always be fast and good
As a follow-up I asked him to elaborate on the last point: the logical thing would be that a larger provider would provide better support. His response:
Syd: scaling email backend is not linear - to go from about 3000 accounts and have the features and backup/redundancy, we would have to build a platform that would go to 10-20,000 accounts as a fixed cost business, we would need to not only spend $ on the infrastructure, we would have to spend $$$ on marketing to get the customers to pay for that infrastructure so, the business grows in complexity, cost, and we lose the closeness to the customer.
Jeremy: so a 'boutique' email service is probably a better bet, in your view, than a mega one?
Syd: I believe so.
Here’s what Jeremy Howard of Fastmail had to say (abbreviated for space and fairness). Fastmail has been in the business a while, and is the provider of choice for those groups like Falun Gong who fear hacking by nefarious agents of the enemy (Chinese government, cough):
- Support. FastMail has help for for pre-sales/configuration help and ongoing help
- Specialization. Free accounts are all about maximising ad revenue, not maximising your productivity
- Archival and compliance: FastMail provides 2 levels of archival - journalling of all of a business's sent/received mail to a separate (searchable) archive mailbox, and on-line per-folder backups which can be used to restore a complete folder on demand. Also: searchable, complete, unmodifiable journal of all sent and received email for compliance.
- Supervision and control of staff's use of business email, for security, policy-enforcement, and training purposes.
- Reliability. Every email on FastMail's systems has five levels of redundancy - Redundent HDD storage (i.e. RAID) on both a primary and real-time replica system, plus a complete on-line backup (accessible at a per-folder level).
It’s interesting stuff. It also highlights how we are perhaps being a bit too cavalier with the most important part of our lives—email has crossed the line between private and business, so many of us use our email accounts for both (Palin, cough.) Given that, we need to think hard about how we use that email, and whether free email is a false economy.