Back in the Dark Ages, when dinosaurs ruled the earth … yeah, say the mid 1990s, early ISPs tended to offer “free” email service as part of their connection plans. It was cheap to do; the email usually just took the form of a POP email box, via which you downloaded your email with a client such as Eudora or POPmail for those reprobate MS-DOS users who loved their text-mode clients.

Your email address was usually something like your-dialup-username@the-isp’s-domain-name, e.g don@netlink.co.nz. There were a bunch of reasons for this.

  1. Email was an early “killer app” for the Internet. Giving the customers an email address got them on and able to do something useful with the ‘net, back when the Web was still in its infancy.
  2. Domain name services were offered as a premium service, and were often expensive in terms of the effort and domain name fees required to provide; corporate customers with permanent connections would usually provide their own email service.
  3. Having the ISP’s domain name in all its customers’ email addresses provided brand recognition.
  4. The requirement to change email address created a disincentive for customers to change provider.

The world has changed a bit since then.

There are a bunch of email providers, like Hotmail, Yahoo! and GMail, which will happily give you an email address, and a very nice web interface, which you can use to get at your email from anywhere. There’s absolutely no need to get yourself tied to a specific provider. (There is one caveat though, and that’s that if you’re not paying for the service, you are not a customer.)

Point 1 no longer applies. You don’t need the ISP’s email service.

There are now many commercial domain hosting services available. Granted, they are not free, although many are cost effective, but these provide good email services, including hosted IMAP service (far superior to the old POP service, which assumed you’d only ever get your email on one computer), server-side filtering, spam removal and so-forth, as well as web hosting options. The days of the ISP manually configuring a “virtual domain” onto its web and email servers, and charging a premium price for it, are long gone.

The game of providing email has changed.The service isn’t a case of holding mail in a temporary spool for later download by a single desktop computer. A decent email service stores, and backs up, all email, so that it can bet retrieved from multiple desktop, portable and mobile clients. Spam processing is a major drain on resources; many folk don’t understand that it’s war out there – spam is driven by large commercial interests who pay highly organised criminals to spam, and to attack computers to create the means to spam. So not only do you not want to be the target for these gangs, not being that target is actually cost effective. Automation makes configuring domain names, email and web hosting easy and cheap for suitably organised providers, and domain name registration fees are down to very low prices. For prices in the low hundreds per year, or less, you can have your own domain name, as many email addresses as you need within it, and a smart web host running easy to operate software (such as WordPress, which I’m using to write this).

The last two reasons for ISPs providing email are for the their benefit, not yours. They get the brand recognition. They get to keep you as a customer, or at least on their customer list, for long after their use-by date has passed.

Email has never, ever, been a “free” service; somewhere, somehow, the providers of the service have been making a buck out of it. Maybe it’s in customer retention, maybe it’s in the brand recognition. (It was Telecom Xtra’s explicitly stated goal in its early days to make “xtra.co.nz” a recognised brand.) Maybe it’s in advertising. When you buy that fancy domain / web hosting package with email? Well, the provider has probably spent as much if not more on the email part than on the web hosting part. Which brings me to a simple question.If domain hosting is so cheap, who do I still see @xtra.co.nz email addresses painted on the sides of vans, on billboards and on business cards? The money you spent on that isn’t promoting your business, it’s promoting Telecom’s. Why would you do that?

What is your email worth to you?

What would you do if xtra.co.nz was no longer available?If you’re no longer a Telecom customer, you’re likely to see your @xtra.co.nz email address axed in the near future, unless you pay them to keep it. If changing your address means reprinting your stationery and repainting signs, and losing email from customers that haven’t noticed that your email address has changed, that’s a high price to pay for a “free” service.

So, c’mon. In NZ, we have a domain registration system that’s the envy of the world (and I’m proud to say I’ve had a bit to do with that). Hosting your email has never been so easy or so cheap, at a time that trying to do it yourself has never been so difficult. How you present yourself to an increasingly digital world is important to how others see you, and whether they want to do business with you.

So once again, what is your email worth to you?

One Comment

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