Web-based email programs are versatile, often cheap alternatives to setting up complex, occasionally costly traditional email services. There are some drawbacks, but Web-based email programs can be a cost-effective option. “You don’t have to maintain the infrastructure, servers, software, etc.,” says Gary Chen, small and medium business strategies analyst at the Yankee Group, of Boston. “It’s all managed for you.”

Before jumping into the free email foray, consider the differences between the three most popular brands: Google's Gmail, Microsoft's Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail.

Size matters

A gigabyte might sound large, but not when you’re looking at storing, say, a decade worth of emails.

The storage capabilities vary widely:

Just as important, however, are the email size limits. A large document might need to be split into smaller chunks, wasting both time and money.

As of January 2007, all offer the same email size limits:

  • Yahoo! Mail --10 MB
  • Hotmail -- 10 MB
  • G-Mail -- 10 MB

Regarding storage capability, Google has promised to continuously increase Gmail’s size over time. “Gmail offers a really large amount of storage,” Chen says. He is also quick to note that Google’s mail service has certain quirks separating it from the others.  (See below.)

Privacy and advertising

Shortly after its launch in Spring 2004, Gmail was criticized for its advertising system. Google scans incoming and outgoing emails for key words and attaches appropriate advertisements to them. For instance, mentioning the word “record” in your business email may prompt music ads. Google said the search function helped offset Gmail’s cost and was not used beyond advertising purposes.

Hotmail and Yahoo! also claim to not read or forward email messages. They also have advertising, usually a border alongside the message inbox or a brief text promotional ad for their email services. Hotmail and Yahoo! ads can be decreased by paying a monthly fee -- which eliminates the main advantage of free Web-based email.

Either way, experts recommend using a specialized email service when dealing with sensitive financial or personal information. “The biggest problem with Internet-based email programs comes down to security,” says Andy Rathbone, author of the upcoming Upgrading and Fixing PCs for Dummies. “Does a business really want somebody else to be storing all their email?”

Ease of use and access

The Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo! user interfaces are not much different than Microsoft Outlook or other email software, but have one key advantage: all can be accessed from any PC or Mac. Depending on the carrier, all three can be accessed through a cell phone.

Unfortunately, Hotmail doesn’t have POP3 access, technology that allows you to read your emails through a different service. Yahoo! supports POP3, though it is most integrated into Gmail. “Gmail can send copies of your email to your PC's email program. That gives you an important backup: If your PC -- or even if the office’s server -- crashes, the email stays safe,” Rathbone says.

POP3 becomes more crucial considering that all three email services do not offer guarantees, warrantees, or live tech support. They are free services. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.