Microsoft Exchange and Outlook dominate the market for corporate email. Small businesses running Exchange Server use Outlook almost exclusively. Until recently, even individuals and businesses without a server would use Outlook with their POP3 mail accounts.

But in the last couple of years, almost everyone has started to chafe at a singular disadvantage of an individual copy of Outlook: it can’t be used easily anywhere except by sitting at the computer where it’s installed.

We want to read our mail from any computer, anywhere. We want to use more than one computer – a desktop in the office, another one at home, or perhaps a notebook for the road – and we want our email on all of them. We want our mail on a Blackberry or iPhone or Windows Mobile device. All of those things can be done with Outlook but not easily and not without compromises.

It’s driving people to set up their mail online with Google Gmail or Microsoft’s Windows Live Hotmail or Yahoo Mail. There are some compromises there, too, but the convenience is starting to outweigh everything else. The webmail providers are adding features right and left, so it’s possible now to use the online services without regret.

Google Gmail has devoted followers who love its presentation of messages in organized threads and unparalleled search options. Google is constantly tweaking it to offer more storage space, more options for displaying mail on more devices, and more features.

Here’s a lengthy comparison of Outlook and Gmail. It’s worth reading – your attention will be drawn to things you might not have considered, and you may find yourself nodding unexpectedly at one choice or the other. I think the author undersells Outlook a bit. (One point he doesn’t mention, for example: people are very upset when they click “Send by email” in Internet Explorer or Word and nothing useful happens – the webmail services don’t integrate with Windows that way.) And in the end, personal taste may outweigh any of these features; some people hate Outlook; personally, I can’t use Gmail – I find it unintuitive and clumsy and unattractive.

The next few years will be a blur. Outlook’s profile is dropping for home users; Microsoft does not even include Outlook with the Home and Student Edition of Office 2007, presumably because more people are using the online services instead (and perhaps because Vista’s Windows Mail is a really nice mail program, better suited for many people who don’t need Outlook’s complexity).

On the other hand, Microsoft just announced a new program that may change the game completely for small businesses and keep them with Outlook. I’ll tell you about that on Wednesday.

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