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4. Are you willing to pay? If so, how much?
If you want free, get Hotmail or Gmail. (And don’t turn up your nose at Hotmail. If you haven’t looked lately, I recommend you try it again. It’s a first-class webmail solution that would have armies of fans if it came out of Mountain View or Cupertino.)
Google Apps is also available as a free offering. It’s limited to 10 user accounts, and each account has the same server storage as a free Gmail account—currently just over 7 GB.
The paid offerings are Google Apps for Business, Office 365, and Intermedia Hosted Exchange.
Prices start at roughly $50 a year, and you can get a lot of extra services along with your e-mail package. The most important, as far as I’m concerned, is the dedicated support that isn’t available with the free services (more about that later). Google offers a variety of add-ons for its Google Apps for Business customers. Microsoft includes SharePoint and Lync Online (messaging and collaboration) with Office 365. Those latter add-ons were the reason I chose Office 365 for my next book.
- Google Apps: the free version allows up to 10 user accounts, with the same email storage limits as a free Gmail account. Google Apps for Business bumps storage to 25 GB and adds BlackBerry and Microsoft Outlook interoperability costs; it costs $5 per user account per month, or $50 if paid annually.
- Office 365 Plans
- Plan P (for professionals and small businesses), $6 per user account per month
- Plan E (midsize business and enterprises), plans start at $10 per user per month. For $24 a month, a single user can get an Office Professional Plus license as well.
- Intermedia Hosted Exchange: $7.50 per mailbox per month for Business account (25 GB storage), or $10/month for Enterprise account with unlimited storage and a 50 MB SharePoint plan; additional SharePoint storage is available for a fee.
5. How good is the spam filtering?
This is the question most people forget to ask. In my case, there was an enormous difference. Gmail, Hotmail, and Office 365 were equally effective at separating the wheat from the chaff, with a low incidence of real messages swept into the Junk folder.
An Office 365 P plan doesn’t offer any fine-tuning over its spam filters. It's a simple toggle.
[Update; A reader points out that with Office 365 E plans, administrators have access to Forefront for Exchange.]
Intermedia offers much more fine-grained control. Every message that goes through its SpamStopper engine is assigned a numeric score. The higher the score, the more likely a particular message is likely to be spam. Using the sliders in the SpamStopper section of HostPilot allows you to set thresholds based on those scores, with messages above a certain score being moved to the Junk folder or summarily deleted.
One of my e-mail addresses has been in use since 1994. It gets mountains of spam every day—I estimate more than 90% of the messages sent to that address are spam. Unfortunately, I can’t retire the address, so I simply forward it to another account at a different domain. It is a real-world stress test for any spam filter.
With Office 365, I would typically get hundreds of messages from this address shunted into my Junk folder every day. Trying to pick the occasional legitimate message out was unpleasant work, and I know I missed a few important messages. By contrast, the Intermedia filters allowed me to filter spam using the numeric rating attached to each message after it was analyzed. I was able to quickly tweak those settings so that only a handful of actual spam messages sneak through every day. That makes the false positives much easier to spot and whitelist.
6. Do you need human support?
When it comes to support, you definitely get what you pay for.
With free Gmail, Hotmail, and Google Apps accounts, and with the $6-per-month Office 365 Plan P, you get only online support (typically via user-to-user forums). Google Apps for Business and the E-for-Enterprise Office 365 plans offer more robust support options.
But they can’t hold a candle to Intermedia’s support, which it legitimately touts as “industry leading.” I used their free migration service with a test account last fall to copy the contents of my Gmail account to corresponding folders in the new Exchange store. Since I moved my primary business and personal accounts to Intermedia, I’ve needed to call for support on several occasions. Hold times were brief, and the engineers I talked to were able to address my issues quickly and accurately.
They were especially good at helping me track down external causes for issues, including DNS configurations, that were affecting e-mail delivery. When I was briefly experiencing some routing issues on Comcast’s network, Intermedia’s engineers contacted Comcast to fix the issue. That was a refreshing change from the usual finger-pointing that goes on.
In my case, the combination of excellent spam filtering and great support were enough to tip the scales heavily in Intermedia’s favor. Ironically, Intermedia recently announced that it plans to resell Office 365 services. You can bet I'll be monitoring that development closely.
And that’s my list.
If you’ve gone through a similar decision process, it’s possible your calculations were different. Tell me about it in the Talkback section.