emailiconIt’s rare now to find traditional POP3 email accounts, where messages are downloaded to a single computer and are only accessible at that computer. We move between different computers freely (home/work/laptop/netbook) and want our mail to be available on all of them. We are buying smartphones in staggering numbers and getting our email on the phone is a big part of the reason.

Seeing our mailbox from multiple computers and devices can be done clumsily with a POP3 account but it’s far easier with Gmail, Hotmail, or an Exchange mailbox. If you are using an email address is given out by your ISP (@sonic.net, @comcast.net, @attglobal.net), you might want to consider getting the flexibility that will come with a new email address.

GMAIL  Google has just under 200 million Gmail users. It has steadily improved the accessibility of Gmail messages far beyond the familiar web interface. Gmail messages can be pulled into Outlook or other mail programs in a variety of ways but the more important long-term change came when Google added support for Exchange ActiveSync, Microsoft technology that allows Gmail to be synced seamlessly with a wide variety of mobile devices, including iPhones, Android phones, and Windows Mobile phones.

HOTMAIL  Windows Live Hotmail is getting an overhaul soon that may make it more attractive. The numbers are staggering – Hotmail has 370 million active users worldwide moving 1.5 billion photos and 350 million Office documents every month.

I don’t know the breakdown of US Hotmail accounts but there is a perception problem for Microsoft: when people think of mail services, Hotmail is a distant runner up in their thoughts, kind of like having a MySpace account in a Facebook world. There are a very small number of people in my contacts list with Hotmail accounts, and literally just a handful using Hotmail as their primary account.

The Hotmail makeover brings modest improvements to the interface and some new controls for filtering mail and integrating with other Microsoft services (particularly Messenger). There is an exhaustive description of the updates and changes here. It’s the first in a series of rollouts of changes and improvements to Microsoft’s “Windows Live” services, which will include more important changes to the way files are stored online when Office Web Apps is rolled out on June 15.

Your Hotmail mailbox can be displayed in Outlook if you install a small bit of software to handle the syncing.The important new development is that Hotmail will also now support Exchange ActiveSync, making it just as easy to sync a Hotmail account to an iPhone, Android phone, or Windows Mobile phone.

EXCHANGE  Small businesses run by Microsoft Small Business Server already have a rich experience with mail: Outlook mailboxes can be viewed in Outlook on multiple computers, synced with Exchange ActiveSync to mobile devices, and viewed online with Outlook Web Access.

I’ve been supporting hosted Exchange accounts with Microsoft Online Services since the service was first introduced. It allows small businesses to have mailboxes hosted by Microsoft with all the features of Exchange and none of the headaches and cost of setting up and supporting an onsite Exchange Server. There have been minor wobbles but on the whole it’s been satisfying, all the more now that the price has been dropped and storage limits increased.

Recently Microsoft dropped an astonishing figure into a random blog entry: Microsoft Online Services has over 40 million subscribers. It has apparently been adopted widely by large enterprises. I have dismissed any misgivings about whether Microsoft was fully committed to the service – obviously it’s a much bigger product than I realized.

All small businesses should consider moving their mailboxes to a hosted Exchange environment. (Microsoft Online Services works best for businesses with three or more mailboxes, but individual hosted Exchange mailboxes can be set up just as easily with other companies.) The rewards are immediate and tangible and the cost is negligible. Call me for more information!

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