Ever have the suspicion that the competition must have a faster, smarter, more life-enhancing e-mail system than you do? If you're going to be envious--or, more to the point, if you're thinking of putting out for a new setup--be informed. Below is a guide to the most popular e-mail systems for business use (with manufacturers' suggested retail prices). All of them have a wide range of security, collaboration, and scheduling functions, and each does some things better than others. So don't simply fall for the system with the most bells and whistles. Also keep in mind that running your own e-mail means buying at least two programs: software for both your e-mail server and the individual computers on your network--the "clients," in techspeak. As you compare, consider these basic questions:

1. What do you want your e-mail to do?

Do you just want to send and retrieve messages? Or also do things like collaborate with co-workers online?

2. Where do you access your e-mail?

Office? Home? Via portable devices? Which kind?

3. How big an issue is e-mail security for your company?

How much spam do you get? How much data do you handle?

How sensitive is it?

4. How much do you want to spend?

On hardware and software? On IT staff to run them?

Competing Packages

No Money Down

A decent e-mail system can be beyond the means of the smallest businesses. There are, however, a few options for start-ups that don't cost anything at all.


You can get no-frills e-mail service via the Web for no money whatsoever. Zero. Nada. Web-based services such as Google's Gmail, MSN Hotmail, and Yahoo! Mail all come with good spam and virus filters and free storage. They are an option for cash-strapped start-ups, and many larger businesses use them as backups in case their main system fails. There are a few significant tradeoffs to consider, though. For one, having some other company's name in your e-mail address (marysmith@gmail.com) may not convey the full-on professional image you're looking for. Plus, some companies block e-mail from these services for fear it may be spam, which means you run the risk of not knowing whether your e-mail got where you wanted it to go.

Web-based e-mail accounts

For small companies with light e-mail needs, some software makers offer Web versions of their e-mail programs--for example, Microsoft Outlook Web Access ($67 per user) and Domino Web Access ($109 per user). They work like this: Your e-mail goes to Microsoft's (or IBM's) server and you access it via the Web. The upside is the price and the convenience of not having to manage the system yourself. The downside is fewer functions. For instance, you can import and export client lists in Outlook, but you can't in Outlook Web Access. The Web versions are also often a bit slower. Try running Outlook Web Access on anything but Internet Explorer; you'll see the difference.

Attention Mac Fans

Every new Apple computer comes with its own useful--and secure--e-mail software.

Versions of major programs such as Outlook and Notes are also available for Apple's operating systems. Or you can use the program that comes with each new Mac: Apple Mail. It's part of Apple's new 0S X Tiger and includes a powerful spam filter and search tool, as well as Smart Folders, which allows you to organize e-mail by sender, date, type of attachment, or other criteria. Mail doesn't have its own calendar function, but it does work with iCal, another Tiger feature, which has scheduling and task-management tools. And in this case, anyway, Apple's small slice of the computer market is an advantage. Mail attracts fewer hackers and is much less vulnerable to virus and worm problems than Outlook.