I originally approached this guide with the intention of providing some sort of advice about which company--Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, or Apple--offered the "best" cloud computing email and PIM experience. But it didn't take long for me to realize this would be a mistake. First, these products and services are evolving all the time, and as Apple's recent introduction of MobileMe shows, there's no reason to believe there won't be incredible, revolutionary upgrades every once in a while either. Second, everyone's needs are different. While I may find a particular service worthwhile across the board, you may not. Third, there's no reason you can't mix and match, using the best products and services from any variety of companies, including some we haven't discussed at all.
With that in mind, I'd like to begin wrapping this up with some general feature comparisons between each discussed cloud computing experience. I'll also explain which services I'm using right now and why. In the next and final part of this service, I'll look at ways you can overcome some of the current limitations.
By breaking down the previous comparisons (and my separate MobileMe review) into table form, organized by service--email, contacts, calendar, photos, and storage--we can see some interesting trends. For example, only Apple's MobileMe service requires to you pay a yearly fee, and my guess is that most consumers could get away with the free offerings from Microsoft, Google, or Yahoo! quite easily. On the other hand, the value of Apple's offering could justify the yearly fee, assuming the company ever gets it working correctly. I'm placing my bets elsewhere.
From what I can see, Microsoft's offerings are the most comprehensive and cohesive. No, Windows Mobile hasn't generated the same level of excitement as has the iPhone (heck, even the Blackberry has somehow managed to wrestle mindshare from Microsoft's mobile platform). But Microsoft offers a set of solutions that work across all of the necessary platforms: The PC, the Web, and mobile. If you're looking for a fairly seamlessly plug and play type experience, it's not a bad way to go.
Google seems to be the most spastic, but they're also moving the quickest, and the advent of the Android phone platform late this year could really redraw the map. I think Google's Web-based email and PIM offerings are superior to those from the other companies but, again, your mileage may vary.
I know there are those who love Yahoo! dearly, but aside from Flickr and their native mobile applications, I don't see a lot to recommend there. Couple that with the company's recent problems and a general haziness about Yahoo!'s future, and my gut feeling is that maybe Yahoo! should be avoided.
In any event, here's how the feature tables break down. I've marked a few items as red to denote problems I see as particularly serious. Please do drop me a note if you see any mistakes or omissions; it was sort of torturous making these tables and I'm sure I've left something important out.
A few notes about email services.
|Web service||Windows Live Hotmail||Gmail||Yahoo! Mail||MobileMe Mail|
|Storage: Free version||5 GB||Over 5 GB||Unlimited||n/a|
|Paid version||$20 per year||Additional storage $20-$500 per year||$20 per year||$99 per year|
|Storage: Paid version||10 GB||10 - 400 GB||Unlimited||2 - 20 GB|
|Other client access||Outlook 2003/2007 and Windows Live Mail||POP3||POP3, but only with paid account||POP3|
|Native mobile support||Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Nokia||iPhone, Blackberry, various Java-enabled devices||iPhone, Blackberry, native mobile app on multiple devices||iPhone|
|Mobile Web version||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Domain names||hotmail.com, live.com, msn.com||gmail.com (googlemail.com in certain worldwide markets)||yahoo.com, ymail.com, rocketmail.com||me.com, mac.com|
|Supports custom domain names||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Web service||Windows Live Contacts||Gmail||Yahoo! Mail||MobileMe Mail|
|Native client sync||Outlook 2003/2007 and Windows Live Mail||No||Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express (XP)||Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express (XP), Windows Contacts (Vista)|
|Export to desktop||CSV||Google CSV, Outlook CSV, vCard||Outlook, Thunderbird, Yahoo! CSV, vCard, VCF||No|
|Import from desktop||Outlook, Outlook Express (XP), Windows Contacts (Vista), Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, Gmail||CSV||Multiple, via online TrueSwitch utility||vCard (individual contacts only)|
|Native mobile support||Windows Mobile||iPhone||iPhone, Blackberry, native mobile app on multiple devices||iPhone|
|Mobile Web version||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Web service||Windows Live Calendar Beta||Google Calendar||Yahoo! Calendar||MobileMe Calendar|
|Desktop sync||Microsoft Outlook||Microsoft Outlook||Microsoft Outlook, Palm Desktop||Microsoft Outlook|
|Support iCal Publish||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Support iCal Subscribe||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Native mobile support||No (per this post)||Windows Mobile (via desktop sync), iPhone (via desktop sync)||Mobile app on multiple devices||iPhone|
|Mobile Web version||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Web service||Windows Live Spaces||Picasa Web Albums||Flickr||MobileMe Gallery|
|Storage: Free version||Unlimited, but uploads are limited to 500 photos per month||2 GB||Unlimited, but uploads are limited to 100 MB per month||n/a|
|Paid version||No||Additional storage $20-$500 per year||$20 per year||$99 per year|
|Storage: Paid version||n/a||10 - 400 GB||Unlimited||20 GB|
|Client integration||Windows Live Photo Gallery||Picasa||Windows Live Photo Gallery, Flickr Uploadr, many others||No|
|Mobile integration||Windows Mobile||No||Multiple devices||iPhone|
|Mobile Web version||Yes||Yes (with highly optimized versions for iPhone, Windows Mobile, Nokia S60 3g)||Yes||Yes|
|Web service||Windows Live SkyDrive||No||Yahoo! Briefcase||MobileMe iDisk|
|Storage: Free version||5 GB||n/a||30 MB||n/a|
|Paid version||No||No (can buy additional storage for Gmail and Picasa Web Albums only)||No||$99 per year|
|Storage: Paid version||n/a||n/a||n/a||20 GB|
OK, I'm sure you can scan tables of data as well as the next guy. The big question here, of course, is what do you do about it? With the understanding that everyone is different and has different needs, here's what I'm doing.
PC client. I use Windows Vista, of course.
Mobile. My smart phone is an Apple iPhone. I feel this offers tremendous advantages over other mobile offerings, but I recognize that Windows interoperability isn't where it should be, because Apple treats Windows users like second class citizens.
Email. I use Google's Gmail service for email, and have been using it full-time since early 2007. Gmail offers a tremendous Web interface if what you're looking for is speed and efficiency, as I am. Its spam filtering is excellent, which is crucial. I do not use a dedicated email client on the desktop because I use so many different PCs and moving Outlook data from PC to PC is a disastrous and error-prone activity. Gmail works well on the Web, works fine on the mobile Web, and integrates nicely with the iPhone's native email application thanks to its support of the IMAP standard. Consider the job done.
Contacts. To say that I have thoroughly mismanaged my contacts database to date is an understatement. In my defense, Google's Gmail-based contacts functionality was until very recently completely unusable. They've fixed this, so one of my goals this month is to consolidate and update my contacts there. Right now, however, I have separate contacts lists in Windows Live Contacts and Yahoo! Mail. I know, I know.
Calendar. I use Google Calendar for my scheduling needs. One limitation I've learned to live with is that, while Google "supports" multiple calendars (with color coding, etc.) you can't actually share anything other than the first, primary calendar. So that's all I use. I sync Google Calendar unidirectionally to Outlook with Google's free Google Calendar Sync utility so that I can sync my calendar to the iPhone.
Photos. I use Google Picasa Web Albums to store full-resolution backup copies of all of my photos. I'm currently paying for 40 GB of storage (and using about 30 GB of it). This costs $75 per year. I also backup my complete photo collection to Amazon S3 via the JungleDisk add-on for Windows Home Server. This costs about $5 a month. I have some favorite photos on other services as well, such as Flickr, MobileMe, and Adobe Photoshop Express, mostly for testing. I do pay for a Flickr Pro account as well, though I use that mostly for work-related photos.
Storage. As noted above, I backup photos to Picasa Web Albums and S3. I use Windows Live SkyDrive and Office Live Workspace for online document storage. I also backup data from my Windows Home Server to USB-based backup drives, which are stored offsite.
Next: Overcoming limitations...