What about web mail?

from the June 2006 Newsletter
by Rob Zorn

Web mail, where you log into a web site to send and receive e-mail, has been around for a long time, and there are many free web mail providers out there vying for your attention, each attempting to out-do the other in providing you with the most sublime online web mail experience.

Ultimately, web mail isn't as convenient as using your normal Actrix e-mail address, but there are times when it is handy to have an e-mail address that is more disposable or less personal.

This month we'll look at a few of the larger generic web mail providers out there. Next month we'll have a look at two or three that offer a more specialised service. 

What's in it for them?

Most of what web mail providers offer may indeed be free to the end user, but it's still big business (Microsoft bought Hotmail back in 1997 for $400 million, for example). Some will advertise directly to you while you're logged in. Others will offer you advertising newsletters, and of course, the more users they can boast, the more they can charge their advertisers. Sometimes you'll be enticed to upgrade to a premium service for a modest fee.

Mostly, though, it's about numbers and capturing you for the long haul. Web mail sites will offer you extra features that they hope will make you log in and stay all day. The longer they can keep you (and millions of others) as users, the more likely they will be to derive some financial benefit from you somewhere along the line.

Advantages/Disadvantages

Web mail works independently of your e-mail program, so it has a few advantages. The first advantage is that you can access it from anywhere. If you're at an Internet café, or at a friend's computer, you can't get to your e-mail program, but you can log into your web mail account and use your web mail e-mail address.

Web mail is also handy for those times when you need a secondary e-mail address in order to avoid spam, or perhaps to maintain some anonymity. The good thing about web mail is that it's free, so closing one e-mail address down and starting up a new one is easy enough to do.

Be warned, though, using a web mail address doesn't mean you're completely anonymous. If you make a nuisance of yourself, you can still be traced by the information about your computer that is given to the web mail site when you connect to it.

The disadvantages are that you can't use web mail to access messages you have already downloaded to your computer via your e-mail program on the computer you usually use. Also, because the web mail service is free, the provider usually doesn't have any qualms about attaching a brief line or two of self promotion to the footer of your outgoing messages.

And it can be a little slow on dialup. Web mail servers tend to be pretty busy, and they can take a little time to move from page to page.

HOTMAIL (www.hotmail.com)

Owned by Microsoft, Hotmail is the world's largest free web-based e-mail service, mostly by virtue of the fact that it's the longest running. It's been around the since 1996.

Features include spam and virus filtering, two megabytes of online storage for New Zealand users, MSN chat and an online calendar which you can share if you're popular enough for your contacts to be concerned about your schedule.

If you use a Microsoft e-mail program like Outlook or Outlook Express, these can be set up to send and receive your Hotmail, though new users are now charged a fee for this service.

Some of the downsides are the fact that, because it has millions of subscribers already, getting the user name you want isn't easy. Be forewarned, nzhotstud@hotmail.com and all its derivatives are already gone.

YAHOO MAIL - www.yahoo.co.nz

Yahoo Mail has been a popular alternative to Hotmail since 1997, and also boasts many millions of users all around the world.

It comes with all the standards including virus and spam protection, an online calendar, Yahoo chat, address book and a notepad. Their online storage capacity tops Hotmail's at 1 Gigabyte (1042 megabytes), but the real advantage for New Zealand users is that you can use @yahoo.co.nz as your e-mail address. This has freed up a lot of user names that were taken under the yahoo.com model, but alas, nzhotstud and all its derivatives are again already gone.

GMAIL - www.gmail.com

Launched in 2005 by Google, GMail is the latest major web mail service provider. It was voted #2 in PC World's Top 100 products of 2005, right after Firefox, and it's easy to see why. GMail includes a large 2.5 Gigabytes of storage space (and this is increasing all the time) and its innovative new features have set its competitors scrambling to keep up.

GMail has all the usuals plus a number of excellent extras such as a vacation responder and the very practical "conversational e-mail format" which combines an initially sent e-mail with all its various replies back and forth into one e-mail in your inbox making following a protracted e-mail conversation much easier.

To join GMail, you have to be invited by a current member or request GMail to send a text message with a signup code to your cell phone. You can do that at the site. This process helps verify you are a real person and not a spammer. Spammers love to use web based e-mail services because they're cheap and relatively anonymous.

You can also access GMail via WAP, and even via the PS2 web browser in a limited capacity.

NZOOMAIL - www.nzoomail.co.nz

Nzoomail was originally run by TVNZ, as part of its Nzoom.com web site, but now functions a standalone New Zealand based web mail service.

It has less options than some of the bigger providers, but certainly all you need for a basic e-mail service. One feature is that Nzoomail will automatically retrieve email from up to three of your existing web mail accounts if you want it to. That's pretty handy for keeping your e-mail all in the one place.

It also offers a choice of three or four other domain names you can use for your e-mail address if you don't want to use @nzoomail.co.nz as your e-mail address.

Actrix Web Mail

Some customers may not realise that they have automatic access to their Actrix e-mail on the web. If you go to the Actrix homepage (www.actrix.co.nz)  and log into My Actrix with your user name and password, you will be able to check and reply to any new messages in your Actrix mailbox.

This is handy for a number of reasons. People travelling can still use their Actrix e-mail address because they can log into Actrix web mail from anywhere in the world. The same goes for access to your Actrix mail if you're using someone else's computer.

There are also times when some well-meaning friend sends you an e-mail with an enormous load of attachments (party photos are a classic example) and this e-mail takes forever to download on dialup, or just gets stuck half way, meaning any new e-mail behind it is inaccessible. With Actrix web mail, you can simply log into your account online, find the e-mail that's a problem, and then delete it. When you go back to your e-mail program, you'll find the problem gone.

Keep in mind, though, that in accessing your Actrix e-mail this way you are bypassing your e-mail program. You won't be able to see messages you've already downloaded to your e-mail program, and anything you delete via web mail will be gone for good. (It won't be in Outlook Express's Deleted Items folder when you go look for it later).

Lastly, when you use Actrix web mail, you're able to check on your spam situation. All Actrix customers automatically have a spam folder but you can really only access that folder online. If our spam filters think one of your e-mails is definitely spam, they'll channel it off to this folder where it will sit for 7 days before being automatically deleted.

It pays to check this folder occasionally just in case (on the miniscule off chance) our spam filters are a little too strict, and accidentally put something you wanted in there. It's also a good place to check if you've been expecting something in e-mail that hasn't arrived.