E-mail options for small businesses

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Toronto Computes, February 1999

While the colour and multimedia glitz of the World Wide Web gets all the press, in a quiet way, e-mail has become the ?killer app? of the Internet-age?the must-have application that makes users sit up and realize that all this Information Highway stuff might actually make sense for them?at home and at work.

Currently, over 100 million computer users are connected, sending over a billion messages per month. And both numbers are growing, fast.

If you?re an employee of a large organization, you probably have an e-mail system in place at work?either using a standard Internet e-mail tool, or one of several enterprise-focused e-mail systems, like Lotus cc:Mail or Microsoft?s Outlook Server.

But if you work out of home or for a smaller organization, it?s just as likely that you aren?t yet connected to the rest of the world via e-mail. How can you do it? What are your options?


A growing number of companies are offering ?free? e-mail,offering this service in exchange for showing you advertisements and collecting personal information.  Juno, (www.juno.com?not available in Canada) offers a basic, free e-mail service to people who don?t even have an account with an Internet Service Provider (ISP). All you need is a computer and a modem, some free software, and a local Juno access phone number.

Basic Juno e-mail lacks some features, such as file attachments, though they provide attachments as part of an enhanced US$2.95 per month Juno Gold service.

Another sort of free mail service is provided by a wide range of Web sites, including the well-known Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) and HotMail (www.hotmail.com-- owned by Microsoft). These Web Mail services require that you already have Internet access, and are accessed using a standard Web browser.

Since you need to already be accessing the Internet, and so probably have an e-mail address via your ISP, what?s the attraction of getting mail this way? They seem to be popular?Hotmail, for instance, claims an astounding 10 million accounts-- a number inflated by people with multiple accounts and those who sign up but never actually use the service. They suggest their service is useful for people in a number of categories:

  • people who share a single address with several family members or co-workers can each get private addresses.
  • People who access the Internet from work can send and receive e-mail independent of the company?s e-mail system?handy if you want to slag the boss, or if you change jobs.
  • Mobile professionals, or world travelers. Anywhere you can access the Web, such as a Web café, you can check your mail.
  • Students with Internet access from school or from a public library?places where it may be difficult to access an ICP-based mail account. Similarly, teachers could use such as service to provide each student with their own mail address

Hotmail and similar do not intend to provide a cheap way for small businesses to provide employees e-mail accounts for business purposes. Hotmail?s FAQ, for example, suggests:

?Example of Prohibited Use:
You are an individual who runs a business. You and your employees want to use Hotmail accounts rather than registering and administering your account through a paid ISP.?

Just the mail?

In some cases, you may want e-mail, but feel like you don?t want or need the rest of the Internet, particularly the Web. Some companies may feel like every employee needs the e-mail connection, but don?t want them being able to surf the Web on company time. Many local ISPs offer e-mail-only accounts for as little as a third the cost of a full-access Internet account?check around.

Alternatively, the Vancouver-based Electric Mail Company (www.electric.net) specializes in providing safe and reliable e-mail services for medium to large-sized businesses.

All this and more?

Most people, however, continue to access the mail as part of a full-service Internet account. And in most cases, this means using dedicated e-mail software. Much of this software is available for free in versions for both Windows PCs and Macs.

  • Netscape Mail is part of the Netscape Navigator and Communicator packages. In fact, if you install this popular browser, you can?t choose not to install their e-mail client. Netscape Mail underwent a major upgrade as part of the new Navigator/Communicator 4.5 package.
  • Microsoft Outlook Express comes with the various versions of Internet Explorer (and thus with Windows 98). You can install or remove it independently from Microsoft?s browser.
  • Qualcomm Eudora Lite (www.eudora.com), a free version of the company?s commercial Eudora Pro. Qualcomm claims over 18 million Eudora users, partly due to this product widespread distribution by ISPs.

These free programs have become very similar, each offering quite similar feature sets, and three-pane interfaces, with lists of folders, lists of messages in a selected folder, and the text of a selected message. The newest versions make it easier for users to move from one product to another, taking their mail, folders, and address books with them.

And the winner is?

Despite the range of free options, I?d recommend taking a good look at a commercial product such as Qualcomm?s Eudora Pro (about CDN$60). It provides features such as multiple profiles, allowing you to access multiple e-mail accounts at once, and filters, allowing automatic answering of messages, deletion of unwanted mail, and more. The newest version (4.1) is multi-threaded, allowing you to continue to work in the program while it takes care of housekeeping chores like checking or sending your mail, all in the background. If you?re not convinced, there?s a 30-day free trial version available for downloading at the company?s Web site.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan