When you really think of it, it’s amazing that in the ever-changing space of the Internet, the humble email address has stood the test of time.

When you consider how embedded email is to your online presence and how essential it can be, it continually baffles us at iBrothers why people still insist on using the email address given to them by their ISP (internet service provider). Our reasoning behind this is that when you really consider how your email address is extended into nearly every part of your online life, wouldn’t it make sense to have an address that can move as you move house or internet provider?

Before we go into how to do it, I think it’s important to really explore how entrenched your email address is to your online identity.

I can’t recall how many times I have heard that some technology or another would finally “be the death of email”. On the contrary, those same technologies, which will apparently “change the way we communicate”, still, rely to some degree on email as part of their process.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter require your email address, at the very least for authentication and as a mechanism for resetting your password should you forget. Alerts can also be setup to send you an email from these sites. The death of email seems to be much further away than most pundits claim.

As brick and mortar businesses offering goods and services entered the online world, they too used email as a way of communicating and verifying who you are. Online banking, the ATO, loyalty cards in their ever numerous incarnations (really – why can’t merchants just standardise!), Coles or Safeway’s online shopping and of course, online shopping, online auction sites … the list goes on.

For most of us, should the need arise to change our ISP and with it our email address, remembering all the places you may have signed up to would be next to impossible. Even if you did, the act of going through each place to re-register your new email address would be time consuming and laborious.

The reasons for changing your ISP are generally down to two. You have moved address and your current ISP does not offer services in your area or the services offered are more expensive. You decide to use an ISP offering a better or cheaper service. Either way, once you have disconnected your account to say Bigpond, that bigpond.com.au address will have gone too. You may be able to make provisions such as continuing to pay for an account that will keep your email address active but that is generally a total waste of money.

The simplest answer of course is to use an email address that is not tied to your ISP.

Email Basic Requirements

For an email account to be really useful, it needs to be able to be accessed in a few different ways.

The most traditional way is through an email  desktop client. A client is a program like Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird or Apple’s inbuilt OSX Mail.

In order for a program to be able to access email, the email server must support at least one of the following methods

  • POP3 (where email is downloaded from the server and stored on your computer)
  • IMAP (where a copy of the message is stored on your computer as well as the email server)

The most flexible method is of course via a web browser and is commonly referred to as Webmail. Almost all free email accounts will give you access to your email this way, as it’s the simplest way of delivering advertising to you which is how they can offer it “free”.

The third is integration with Smartphones such as the iPhone, Android based smartphones and Windows 7 smartphones. It’s important when selecting a new email service to consider how easily it would be to connect to your existing smart phone, or a potential future purchase. Be sure to check if an account has the ability to also synchronise your calendars and contacts as well as your email.

A quick note about POP3 and IMAP – If you want to have the flexibility of checking your email from a desktop client as well as a web browser, IMAP is the preferred method to use. Ensure that you do practice good housekeeping though and regularly clean up unwanted email as well as clearing your trash and sent items as online storage is not limitless.

Free Email Accounts

The first option to consider is an email account offered for free from one of a few different providers. Google’s Gmail, Microsoft’s Hotmail and Yahoo’s Yahoo Mail are the most popular options for free email addresses.

Each provides something slightly different. Some will give you more room to store email, some will give you access to other services that you may or may not require but all will generally advertise to you as part of their “free” service. It is worth noting that some free email companies will actually embed advertising in the email messages you send so it is important when considering a service to determine if that is how they are generating revenue before signing up.

At iBrothers, we generally have personal accounts with Gmail, have pretty much forgone Hotmail and have never really bothered with Yahoo Mail (who’s website slightly hurt my brain when researching this article).

The main reason we would suggest using Gmail above other offerings is that it supports:

  • IMAP/ POP3
  • No Advertisements in the email messages you send
  • Excellent compatibility with Smartphones
  • Calendar and Contact synchronisation to Smartphones

Further to this is the integration that a gmail account gives you into other services. Google reader (for RSS feeds), Google Docs and access to Google’s acquired services such as YouTube make the Gmail account that much more than just an email account. Connecting the Gmail account to an iPhone or Android phone also synchronises your Calendar and Contacts.

When signing up for a free email account, it is worth understanding the Terms and Conditions associated with it.

For instance, it is well within the rights of free email providers to change their services which may impact the amount of storage space you are provided, the layout of the website and may also change the behaviour of the service in regards to how it runs.  In essence, there are no guarantees that what you signed up for will be the same as time goes on. Furthermore, should a dispute arise with the provider for any reason you may find yourself without the email account and the account deleted along with all your email.

For the most part, the service is provided as is. There are no real guarantees given in terms of accessibility, performance or “up time”. Saying that, someone providing free email service which lose their customer’s mail or have constant disruptions to their service would quickly go out of business. It’s still worth noting the risks involved.

The only other potential downside to a free service is that the name you really want may already be taken. This may leave you in the predicament of ending up with mary187@gmail.com as opposed to mary@gmail.com.

It is worth noting that some social networking sites such as Facebook are also offering email services. The problem we find with these is that it doesn’t offer the flexibility of other established services (it’s a website only offering – no IMAP or smartphone integration) and Facebook’s terms of use have proven in the past to change not in their user’s favour.

Premium Email Service

The next option to consider are independent email providers, which are companies, providing email addresses at a cost.

Some companies such as mail.com will often offer free email accounts with the included advertising and give you an option to pay for a premium service, which removes advertising.

Premium email services usually offer better SLAs (service level agreements) whereby the provider is offering guarantees of service uptime, stability and availability. Some services also offer virus scanning and more advanced spam filtering than the free providers.

There are services such as Apple’s MobileMe, which provide an email account, as well as other services such as Bookmark Synchronisation from Apple’s Safari Web Browser and space on Apple’s servers for iDisk (cloud based storage). If you own a Mac, MobileMe also provides the ability to synchronise photos directly from iPhoto to an online gallery hosted on Apple’s servers.

If you have an iPhone, iPad and or iPod touch, synchronising bookmarks, contacts, calendars and email over the internet to these devices with the MobileMe service couldn’t be easier.

For the most part, a premium email service will give you an email address with their domain (for example, MobileMe would be yourname@me.com, an email address at mail.com would be yourname@mail.com). Some sites such as mail.com have alternative domains available when you sign up.

The costs of a premium service vary greatly depending on the provider. A MobileMe subscription for a single user is $119.00 per year ($179 for a family pack which includes 5 email addresses).  Mail.com offer $3.99/month or $19.99/year to remove the advertisements from the email signatures.

The downside to a premium service is that, like the free services, it is very possible the name you want is already taken.

It’s worth considering a premium service if you really don’t want to deal with advertising and some, like MobileMe, could also offer features that may be useful to you.

Using your own Domain Name

While using any of the above suggestions would be preferable to using the email address given to you by your ISP, you are still pretty much locked into using that provider’s service. The most flexible solution is to register your own domain name.

A domain gives you some distinct advantages. Once you have settled on the domain name (eg. Ibrothers.com.au), you can use any name you like in front it (matt@ibrothers.com.au , matthew@ibrothers.com.au …).

Secondly, you can change the hosting provider should you have issues with the one you sign up with without losing your email address. Assigning your domain to another provider can be tricky, but it’s definitely doable.

Registering a domain name and then setting it up for email is usually a two-step process. Register your domain and then associate it with either a company offering web hosting, a Premium Email Service or build your own Web Server.

Some companies who offer Web Hosting such as Enetica or Melbourne IT will give you the option of signing up for a domain and a Web Hosting package at the same time making the process easier. It is worth looking carefully at the different providers as they all offer something different, have different service level agreements and ultimately can be either dirt cheap and nasty or completely over priced. It’s worth looking over a site like the Whirpool Forums before making a decision.

The cost of registering a domain name can vary depending on the provider. Webcity for example (who are owned by Enetica but offer a cheaper domain registration service) charge $22.50 for 2 years to register a .com, .net or .com.au or .net.au domin.

Registering a domain is actually a relatively simple process. You choose the name you would like (example – “ibrothers”) and using the domain name provider’s website determine if it’s available. Selecting a .com or .net domain is most people’s first choice. A .com.au or .net.au domain can only be purchased by a business which has either a product or business name that is identifiable with that name.

The next step is to associate it with a Hosting Package or Premium Email service. Gmail even offer a free version of their hosted service if that tickles your fancy.

For anyone trying to do this for the first time, iBrothers strongly suggests either using a provider who can do this as part of the domain registration process or discuss this with iBrothers first as we can do this for you.

At the end of the day though, even though it represents a bit of a challenge you will end up with the most portable email solution currently available.

Conclusion

Whichever way you decide to go, an email address that isn’t tied to your ISP is something everyone should endeavour to have. Even if you end up signing up for a Gmail account just to use for the times you need to provide an email address for a social networking site, online shopping portal or pretty much any other place you would need to supply one, it would be a great start.