Many of us cannot imagine life without Outlook. In addition to e-mail, it handles our calendar and address book and to-do list; it fills our handheld devices and addresses envelopes in Word. But it typically lives on a single computer and is not readily accessible anywhere else.
Small Business Server users have it easy: they can use Outlook Web Access, a reasonably good imitation of their Outlook folders presented in Internet Explorer; and Outlook can be set up on a notebook or home computer with a live connection over the Internet to Small Business Server at the office, allowing Outlook to be used from anywhere.
It’s not easy for individuals to use Outlook on multiple computers or from different locations. Some people have used subscription services to access their computers remotely – GoToMyPC, LogMeIn, or the rest. (Here’s some slightly dated information and links about those programs.) That requires the main Outlook computer to be always on, always logged in, and never to crash when you’re on vacation.
It’s possible to set up a “hosted Exchange” mailbox for an individual – a small monthly fee buys a set of Outlook folders on a server run by a big company that can be accessed on the web or from a copy of Outlook that’s been specially configured on one or more computers. I’ve set up several people with a hosted Exchange mailbox but it’s been frustrating – difficult to understand, tricky to set up, and hiccups in the service that are hard to trace. 1and1.com offered cheap rates but their support has been poor lately. I just got a solicitation from Register.com for a hosted Exchange mailbox that was relatively expensive; hidden in the small print was a note that the mailbox size is limited to an absurdly small 100Mb, which some of us now exceed in a single week.
Yahoo Mail got an overhaul a few months ago. It’s gorgeous. There’s new web technology that permits applications to run in Internet Explorer as if they were desktop programs, with right-click menus and drag-and-drop actions. Next month Yahoo has promised that it will remove all size limits on mailboxes.
Hotmail is getting the same kind of overhaul. “Windows Live Hotmail” is in its final testing stages. It’s even closer to the look and feel of Outlook. It’s still described as a “beta” but you can sign up for it and use it now.
It’s possible to integrate your existing e-mail addresses with these services. Say your address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You sign up with Hotmail; your Hotmail address is email@example.com. You can forward all your incoming mail to the Hotmail address, and have your outgoing Hotmail messages display firstname.lastname@example.org as your return address – making the Hotmail address invisible to the outside world. Then use Windows Live Hotmail as your only mail program. Go take a look! It’s not the Hotmail you remember, not by a long shot.
Windows Live Hotmail can assume responsibility for all the mail addressed to a domain name – all mail addressed to any name @vonnegut.com would be sent to Windows Live Hotmail. (You can register a domain name during the Windows Live Hotmail setup.) Addresses can then be set up readily using the Windows Live Hotmail control panel. Families can set up email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and the like, far more easily than most controls for domain mail provided by ISPs.
It’s even possible to integrate the webmail services with Outlook. Well, that’s what they say. I kind of want to see it before I believe it.
Here’s a roundup of the webmail services from PC Magazine, and here’s details about the Windows Live Hotmail service (including screenshots). Leaving Outlook would be wrenching in some ways, but easy access to mail folders from anywhere is increasingly tempting.