The recent security problems with Microsoft's Hotmail have shed light on an interesting but little discussed trend: more and more business users are signing up for free web-based email services so they can get their email while they're on the road.
These free web email services spell trouble for corporate IS departments, because of security concerns that sensitive information can be transmitted to the big, bad Internet. And many IS managers have begun to restrict their users from accessing their accounts on free email services. Last week an article by Carolyn Duffy Marsan in Network World, "Tips for blocking web-based email," even suggested some fixes. Helpful, yes. But all of this is still trying to solve the wrong problem. The real issue is why are people using these free services when corporate IS spends millions annually on maintaining their email systems.
The answer is that remote email is still far too difficult for the average user. If you are running Notes or Exchange, it takes hours to learn how to use these email packages remotely: you have to set up your connection with the right dialing sequence and modem port, your remote server has to have enough free ports to accept your call, and your hotel has to be modem-friendly. Even if you are lucky enough to have a corporate IS department that has standardized on 100% pure Internet email, the situation isn't much better. You exchange your remote server dialing problems with ISP roaming problems.
If your or your corporate IS department aren't highly experienced, you will have trouble getting your email when you travel. It's easier to have your incoming mail directed to a free email service, so you can retrieve it and reply to it anywhere, anytime, using your browser.
(For a closer look on how exposed Hotmail users were, check out this article by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols in Smart Reseller.)
One of my readers, Azeem Azhar, described what he does while traveling. It isn't pretty:
Over the years, I have learned that I need very robust access to my email. It is also good to have choices, so no matter where I am I can review my mail archives and respond without having to use a special Hotmail or other web-based account that I don't want people to know about. Also, I travel to some places with poor Internet connectivity. As a result, my email rarely goes down and I rarely lose messages.
I have setup my main account on my laptop. Also, I have various web-based services, such as MailStart.com and Webmail.com, which point to this account as well as Jfax email-by-phone (for just reading messages, not replying). So if I am away from my laptop, I can still get access to my mail via either a web browser or a phone.
I have four other email accounts, all of which get copies of the mail sent to my primary account:
Whew! That is a lot of work, just to get your email. Now, you probably will not want to do all of this to make sure that you can stay in touch with your cyber-correspondents. But I mention Azeem's setup to show you how broken remote email can be, and also to demonstrate that not all free web-based email is as plagued as Hotmail: the services that Azeem and I use to read our mail from the road such as Webmail, MailStart and MailandNews.com are all very useful. More details can be found here.
But instead of blocking access, IS needs to fix the right problem and make it far easier for users to read their email when on the road, while still maintaining appropriate corporate security.
To celebrate yet another Interop and the coming season of trade shows, I bring you the following quick quiz. If you aren't in high-tech PR you can skip this and move on to more productive work. But if you are in our industry, take a moment to see how you score on the following points:
Finally, my work continues with Core Competence on our on-going Internet Appliance industry report. We have added a review of FreeGate's OneGate 1000. This device targets businesses that want a single-box solution for Internet access, web/email, and VPNs.
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