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Sven-S. Porst:Misc:Webmail en

Contents:
Webmail General
Reliability
Flexibility
Personal
Summary
Alternatives

Warning

This text was written a few years ago. While the general criteria I state for a good e-mail service should still be quite similar, with the addition of a junk filter perhaps, the statements and recommendations made concerning the services in particular are outdated and may be wrong by now.

Introduction

With many people using e-mail these days and many free providers for web-based e-mail being readily available it is clear that people want to take advantage of this, say, to be able to access their e-mail when they are on holiday and only have a web-browser at their disposal.

Hotmail is a big and well-prmoted provider of web-based e-mail and many people are tempted to sign up to their service. So did quite a few of my friends. As time passed, several shortcomings of the service provided by Hotmail became apparent. These shortcomings are not inherent to web-based e-mail services in general and there are both better and worse services than Hotmail.

As these shortcomings are not obvious to the first-time user and I grew tired of explaining them over and over again, I decided to prepare this text, so people can decide for a service on the basis of a better-informed background.

Web Mail in General

There are many features that you may want your provider of web-based e-mail to have. Most of the services don't provide all of them, so you'll have to be clear about your priorities.

I will not attempt to list all the possible features here, as my list will probably be incomplete. I suppose that Hotmail provides and does reasonably well on most of the standard features - as otherwise even the most inexperienced user would go and look for an alternative.

Also, customer service at Hotmail has a bad reputation, but so have customer services at most other free providers. After all, it's a free service - so you'll get what you pay for.

However, it can probably be agreed upon that you want your provider of web-based e-mail to be both reliable and flexible. Also, you may want your e-mail to be personal. Let's look a bit more closely at these points.

Reliability

Hotmail was one of the first providers of free e-mail and has been around and big for a long time. After it had been bought by Microsoft a few years ago, it grew even more thanks to large advertising budgets and aggressive marketing. Just by its sheer size and the fact that it is backed by the software behemoth Microsoft, it is likely that it will continue to be around for many more years - quite an important point for reliability of services in the era of dot-com busts: In general, to be on the safe side you'll want to have you e-mail with a reasonably big provider that has been around for some time.

However, the sheer size has a disadvantage: Because it is so easy to get an account with Hotmail, many people use the service for rogue activities, mass-mailing advertisments etc. Whenever somebody abuses the service, you can report that abuse and the user will be barred from the system. Ironically this barring is so effective, that anybody can claim that you have abused the service and you will be barred - no questions asked. There goes your life-long e-mail address (and with it the replies to your job-applications or the e-mails from your clients).

In principle this can happen with any free service provider but it is known that Hotmail is particularly keen on barring (ex-)users. [On a more serious note: While it may be annoyoing to have to circulate a new e-mail address to all of your friends, basing your career or business on a free service is just foolish.]

Flexibility

This is probably the main reason for using web-based e-mail. It is nice and flexible: You just need a web-browser and a computer connected to the internet and there you go! Very handy, if you're at a friend's, in the odd Internet Café in Cape Town or stuck in an airport because your connection flight is late - you can always check you e-mail.

Of course web-based e-mail isn't all great. In fact, it is quite inefficent compared to dedicated e-mail applications, as you always have to transfer big web-pages (including banner-ads most of the time) instead of only your messages. Also, filing, archiving and searching is much easier with the specialised programs - particularly. And if you have to pay for your internet connection on a per-minute basis using those applications allows you to read and reply to your e-mails off-line, saving a lot of money. So, if you're not 'on the road' you will want to use one of those instead of your web-based e-mail.

There are two ways to accomplish the flexibility of reading your e-mail both on the web and off-line: Forwarding your messages to another e-mail account that you check from home or having your e-mail application (such as Netscape, Eudora, Pegasus, Outlook, ...) fetch the messages for you from your web-based e-mail provider. This is mostly achieved by a technique called as POP (Post Office Protocol - what a nice name!).

Many free e-mail providers are reluctant to provide these services as they mean that you don't have to view any advertisments when reading your e-mail in that case - meaning they don't earn money on every e-mail you read. This is quite a good way to tell how committed a company is to providing a useful service.

Also, forwarding your messages allows you to change your e-mail service without having to circulate a new e-mail address to everyone you know. Obviously not offering the forwarding service is a good way for e-mail providers to make you stay with them, even though you have moved on and may prefer a different, better, service by then.

And guess what? Hotmail offers neither forwarding, nor the ability to get your e-mail via POP. All they offer is a proprietary way to retrieve your e-mails that works with their own e-mailing application Outlook (Express) only.

You don't want to use Outlook (Express) because its notoriously unsafe and badly programmed? It doesn't run on your system because you are using Unix? You aren't allowed to use it beacuse your university oder employer doesn't want to compromise their network's security and offer an open door for viruses? Bad luck then, I guess.

Personal

Besides the texts you send, e-mail communicates a lot about you. This begins with your e-mail address. Having an address at a big free service always obviously looks like a cheap solution. As these services are abused a lot, some servers will even refuse to accept e-mails with a 'From:' address at these services (again this is not specifiy to Hotmail).

If you have an e-mail address at university or work, you should use it as the address always indicated that you have a legitimate status within that organisation and that you actually are who you pretend to be. People are much more likely to believe a message coming from queen@royal.gov.uk than the same message having liz2@hotmail.com as its sender. Another negative aspect of having a Hotmail address is illustrated by this Cartoon.

Also, when sending e-mail there are a few don'ts, which include sending HTML-code (also known as rich text) in your messages. Hotmail (as well as the e-mail part of Netscape or the Outlook Express application) promote this behaviour when left at their default settings. These e-mails can be extremely hard to read if the recipient uses an e-mail application that doesn't interpret HTML-code or has de-activated that option in his/her e-mail application for security reasons.

Sending e-mails with HTML-code in them without the explicit prior permission of the recipient sends a strong personal message about you - it says: 'I am ignorant and/or rude' - surely a message most people don't want to send. So you may want to check that the relevant options are de-activated in you e-mail application and web-mail settings.

And if you're still unsure about the dos and don'ts, you can read a bit about e-mail etiquette and a technical blurb (RFC 2646) while you're at it.

Summary

The service offered by Hotmail certainly is among the more reliable on the Internet, although you might lose your address there overnight because your mates thought it was a funny thing to do when they were drunk. More importantly, you should be aware of the fact that by choosing Hotmail and giving your Hotmail address to your friends, you effectively say:

'I want to restrict myself to reading my e-mail in a web browser or using Microsoft applications. I do not want to be able to use more efficient applications for my e-mail and I also waive the possibility to easily change to a different provider for my e-mail.'

Alternatives

So Hotmail may not be the best choice for web-based e-mail after all. Are ther any alternatives?

As I suggested earlier, it is probably a good idea to stick to a biggish e-mail provider as you don't want to see your e-mail address being closed down in some dot-com desaster. Viable free alternatives should be:

Yahoo.com/.co.uk
One of the internet-veterans and still a good search engine. Offers @yahoo.xx e-mail address, where xx may vary depending on your country. Offers POP-access and forwarding at the cost of some advertisment. E-mail service integrates nicely with the personalised MyYahoo portal and Yahoo Instant Messaging.
GMX
Available in many languages and offering a comprehensive set of services, including forwarding and POP access. I don't like their new design, though.
Web.de de
German-only service that offers the most comprehensive service I've seen so far. It's efficient, quick and offers forwarding POP-access, encryption, fax-service, you-name-it.
Bigfoot
Offers many e-mail services, including forwarding (up to 25 messages per day)