Business Email Providers

In today's modern world the old tried and true email is still the single most important way that business people communicate.

Email is as-important, or maybe even more important, than your telephone.

This article discusses business email hosting and some differences between the top two popular providers. And, as usual, I'll offer my opinion and recommendations as well.

For this article, we'll just assume you have a custom domain, your own dot-com, for your email. If not, you should CLICK HERE to read another article on why a custom domain is important for business.

First of all, lets discuss the various ways that email exists along with their pros and cons. Then we'll discuss the two big providers.

When someone sends you email, that email is delivered to an email server, sitting there waiting for you to pick it up -- that much is the same regardless of how you access your email. But after that things can work in different ways. Here are the three major ways people access their email.

  1. Exclusively web-based, or "in the cloud"

  2. Using a local email program, like Outlook, with folder synchronization to the cloud (IMAP).

  3. Using a local email program, like Outlook, and downloading only (not syncing) to the local device (POP).


Exclusively web-based

Using this model, your email resides exclusively on the email server. You'll read, reply, and compose email on the server itself using a web browser, such as Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer. At no point is any email message residing on your device or computer. It's kind of like browsing on amazon.com. It's all in the cloud (hosted elsewhere on the internet), not on your computer.

The main advantages to this approach are:

  1. Your email experience "follows you" to whatever device you're using: Laptop, a friend's computer, your smart phone, whatever. All the read/unread statuses, replies, the state of the inbox, sent items, drafts, all other folders, etc. are all preserved regardless of which device or computer you use. Email is not downloaded to these computers and devices, you are simply viewing from them.

  2. Your email is backed-up by the email provider in their huge and redundant data centers. It's a lot safer there than on your laptop.


The main downside used to be that it was impossible to work offline. If you aren't online, then you can't very well reach the email server, right? Google has been addressing that with Gmail Offline, a Chrome add-on. But really, except for using your laptop on an airplane, how often are you really unable to get online? In today's hyperconnected world, it's pretty unusual to be away from any and all internet access.

Local Access with folder synchronization to the cloud (IMAP).

Under this model, you'll be using a local email program like Outlook. Your email is still maintained on the server but a copy of your entire mail store is also maintained on your local device and is synchronized with the server.

The advantages to this approach aren't as notable these days because of advances in web-based systems, but here they are:

  1. You'll have a local copy of all your email so you could at least read email while offline. Outgoing mail would be queued for transmission next time you are online.

  2. Essentially limitless space for archiving old email, limited only by the capacity of your local storage devices.


Disadvantages are:

  1. Initial synchronization can take a long time depending on the size of your email store and the speed of your internet connection. And that same synchronization must occur on every computer on which you use a local email program (like Outlook).

  2. IMAP and Exchange occasionally hang-up and refuse to sync, requiring various remedies to fix. I see this regularly.

  3. Mail store status (read flags, state of various folders, etc.) don't always seamlessly sync between your various devices. e.g. You'll read an email on your laptop, but it still appears as unread on your office computer. This is not uncommon.


Download only (not syncing) to the local device (POP).

This really is your father's Oldsmobile. This is the original way email was done and is now ancient. Under this model, email is downloaded from the server to your local computer then deleted (usually) from the server. Years ago when storage was expensive, email providers did not offer much server storage. You had to download and purge email from the server often lest you reach your storage limits causing new incoming email to be rejected.

Advantages are slim. The only advantage to this model is that your email isn't as vulnerable in the event your account is compromised because most or of it was deleted from the server last time you downloaded your email. But this is hardly considered a security feature. There are better ways to secure your email account.

Disadvantages:

  1. Email folder status and messages is not maintained across your devices. e.g. Email sent from one device will not appear in the sent folder of a different device. This is big PITA if you access email from more than one device or computer.

  2. If you have only one device or computer and you lose it or the storage device crashes with no backup, then your email is lost forever. That could be catastrophic to your business depending on how you use and archive email.


The 1990s called, they want their email program back

Microsoft Outlook is how most people access their email when they're not using a web-based system. It really is the 1990's way of accessing email. Folder synchronization between devices is dodgy, it can consume a lot of space, and it simply doesn't integrate well in the mobile-enabled world of today.

For large enterprises, Outlook may have some advantages such as central management features. But for small business, generally not.

Now we'll discuss various email ecosystems: Google's G Suite (business Gmail), Microsoft Exchange, and all the others.

I. Google G Suite (Gmail on your domain)

Gmail in it's normal and recommended state is exclusively web-based. Under this model, your email resides on Google servers and you'll access it there. G Suite (and Gmail) is one of Google's top products. They throw massive resources to G Suite to ensure a good experience. Gmail includes the usual Contacts and Calendar as well as dozens of other more specialized tools.

In this article, I may use the terms "Gmail" and "G Suite" interchangeably. They are essentially similar products, based on the same underlying software, just targeting different user groups.  

The user interface is very fast, modern, clean and sparse in appearance. e.g. There aren't countless icons and buttons cluttering every screen that hardly anyone uses or even understands. The UI (User Interface) features a high ratio of white space, not cramming every 1/4 inch of screen with a button, box, menu, or link. Yet Gmail manages to offer the features most people need. The UI has undergone some updates and a few face lifts in it's 10+ years of life as Google's engineers have determined what features people care about.

Gmail offers a number of cool features, some of which no one else offers. Here's a partial list of features.

  • Conversation (or threaded) view. Related emails are gathered together in a single "row" in your inbox. Click on the row to see all the separate emails. No more jumping between the inbox and sent items or endlessly scrolling up and down in your inbox looking for a reply that came three weeks ago. I love this feature. Google didn't invent it, but they certainly made it popular. If that's not your brand of vodka then it can be disabled.

  • Labels instead of folders. In a regular email program, if you want to file an email away in a folder, you must choose which folder. You cannot place an email in more than one folder unless you copy it, using up space. Instead, Gmail lets you assign as many labels to an email that you want. So, labels look and act like folders, but you can assign more than one to an email.

  • Stars. This feature lets you mark an email with a star. The meaning of the star is arbitrary -- it's up to you. You can also click a button to see only star'ed emails. There are twelve different stars and other shapes that you can choose from. A handy visual reminder that means whatever you need it to mean.

  • Category Inbox. Gmail will sort your incoming emails based on several high-level criteria and place them in alternate inboxes for you. By default, you get the regular inbox, a social inbox, and a promotions inbox. So all your Facebook update emails will be routed to the social inbox and all the promotional emails (not spam, but legitimate promotional emails, like a weekly sales email from one of your online retailers) will go into the promotional inbox. Gmail is pretty smart about it, too. I rarely have to correct it.

  • Spam Detection. Ah yes, spam, that tasty canned meat from Hormel. All email systems have some spam detection features with various levels of false positives and negatives. But consider for a moment what made Google a household word. Search. Google applies their powerful search kung fu along with other spam detection methods to email, eliminating spam with remarkable accuracy. Again, I hardly ever need to correct it.

  • Consolidation. Gmail lets you consolidate several outside email accounts into the Gmail umbrella. Send and receive email from these outside accounts from inside Gmail, using Gmail's excellent UI.


It's also possible to access Google-hosted email using any local email program, like Outlook or Thunderbird. You can use Gmail in a synchronization model (IMAP) or a straight download model (POP). POP is reliable but it's incredibly limited. It was originally specified back in the 80's. No syncing of statuses or email between devices.

Mobile Use: Gmail, Contacts, and Calendars work well on iOS (Apple) and Android devices. Google wrote their own app for both ecosystems and actively support it. I have the iPhone and iPad and use Gmail, Contacts, and Calendaring with no issues.

Management: The administrative management console is more coherent and easier to use than Microsoft's management console. There's less clutter and irrelevant links on Google's console. It's much cleaner.

3rd Party Support: Google has strong 3rd party integration for CRM systems and other professional business tools.

Gmail with your custom domain costs $5/month/user or $50/year/user. Those prices are comparable to Microsoft Exchange.

II. Microsoft Exchange

Exchange has been a corporate business email solution since the 1990s. It was and still is a widely used enterprise messaging system. In the early aughts, 3rd party providers started offering Exchange as a hosted service, making it available to companies (often smaller ones) that did not wish to run their own in-house Exchange server (a considerably painful thing to do). Then more recently, Microsoft started offering hosted Exchange subscriptions themselves, presently in concert with their Office 365 offering.

If you are an unapologetic and unrepentable Outlook fan then Exchange is the best option, especially if you want to use Contacts and Calendars as well. Outlook doesn't play as well with Gmail as it does Exchange, which makes sense, really. Both Outlook and Exchange are Microsoft products so they're sure to get along better -- usually.

Some 3rd party providers also offer cloud-based access via Outlook Web Access and Microsoft themselves offer Outlook 365, a newer cloud-based offering. Whereas OWA wasn't a half-bad "Outlook on the web" solution, I can't say the same for Outlook 365. In my experience, Outlook 365 is simply not as fast or snappy as standalone Outlook or Gmail.

While Outlook works better with Exchange than it does with Gmail, it's still not without its problems. User authentication and synchronization problems continue to vex my clients that use Outlook with Exchange. So far, I've always been able to get it working again, but not by actually "fixing" it. Usually, I have to resort to deleting the local Exchange credentials or the entire mail store then reattaching to the Exchange server, an inelegant if ultimately effective approach.

Also, as people today accumulate ever more email with attachments, it's not unusual for a client to have 10+ gigabyte PST or OST files (PST and OST files are where Outlook stores email). These are (often huge) database files and Outlook is constantly accessing them. Switching between folders, searching for email, changing the display order, etc. can all take some time if your PST/OST files are large, especially on a slower computer. An SSD will help, but it's still inefficient.

III. All the others

Small business owners that set up their own email, usually without benefit of advice or aid from a professional I.T. consultant, often default to using the (crappy) email service provided by their domain registrar or, worse, their ISP. Usually this is GoDaddy, Network Solutions, Comcast, AT&T, etc. Big mistake.

Domain registrars like GoDaddy (one of the biggest) offer a pathetic email experience.  The webmail interface is truly awful and spam filtering is sub-par. Domain registrars simply don't invest much in their email server offerings. And why should they? Most businesses choose them out of ignorance anyway so it's not like they have to produce a quality email product in order to attract business. Using a local email program like Outlook is the only tolerable way to access GoDaddy-hosted email. But, as described above, Outlook offers an out-dated email experience and you'll suffer the other issues associated with programs that download email.

In short, domain registrars should be used for one thing only: Registering your domain. Everything else you need to do, such as email, web hosting, search engine optimization, social network integration, etc. can be better served by companies that specialize in those offerings.

My recommendation

G Suite is my hands-down recommendation for business email (and Gmail for personal accounts). It's truly a 21st century product freshly designed with the knowledge of -- and informed by -- the memory of those systems that came before. It seamlessly combines the top three needs (email, contacts, and calendar) and integrates tightly with multiple computers and devices, creating a truly mobile-capable experience.

For those who've used Outlook forever and are reluctant to change, let me offer this encouragement: I've converted dozens of clients over to G Suite over the past few years. Every single one of them has been happy with the change, especially once they see how well G Suite integrates with their mobile world. Some took a little more time than others to get used to things, but not a single client has regretted it and asked to go back. Not one.

After having used countless email systems since the 80's (CompuServe, anyone?), I've been a Gmail fan since shortly after it was introduced in 2004 and before it went public. And with G Suite, Gmail is business-ready.