Mac IT Guy: Which e-mail service?

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A couple of weeks ago, I invited you to send me your Mac IT questions. And boy did you ever. We received dozens of queries, from Mac users of all stripes, from experienced IT staffers to networking novices. Here's the first, but this is just a taste; there are dozens more where this one came from.

And I'd like to see even more. E-mail any questions you might have to macitguy (at) I'll try to get to yours as soon as I can.

As the owner of a (very) small business, I need (or at least prefer) a hosted e-mail solution, for its reliability and availability. As a Windows refugee, I thought that Exchange was my only real alternative, which is why I’ve been using it for three years now.

But while Exchange has been OK, and Mac clients are becoming more and more Exchange-friendly, I believe that Macs work best when everything in the ecosystem is pure Apple. To that end, I thought about looking for the Apple alternative to Exchange.

The obvious choice would seem to be a hosted service that runs OS X Mail Server. But so far my searches have yielded virtually no providers of such services; their scarcity is a warning that my choice is unusual.

My second thought was that perhaps MobileMe could provide the required services (on a small-business scale). Apple support told me that MobileMe can do Address Book and iCal just fine, but it wouldn’t let me send and receive mail under my own domain.

So I’m at a bit of a loss as to where to look next. I’m sure there are other third-party alternatives. But without full Apple integration, I might as well use Exchange which worked OK. Is that really my best choice?

While it may seem that you need Mac OS X Server server to get “proper” support for Mac clients from a hosted service, you really don’t. In fact, the back-end server is really immaterial, what you care about are the services.

To be honest, if all your Macs are on some version of Mac OS X 10.6, Exchange is as good an option as any. But, if you're really determined to get away from Exchange, what you want is a service-provider who supports:

  • IMAP/POP, for receiving email, as it makes accessing e-mail from multiple devices far easier;
  • SMTP for sending e-mail;
  • CalDAV, for calendaring;
  • CardDAV for contacts (you can use LDAP for this, but that protocol doesn't play well in a hosted-service environment.)

The first three are easily available from any number of vendors. To make sure you limit yourself to services providing CalDAV, google hosted caldav. (Google itself provides CalDAV services, if you like.)

The real problem here is CardDAV. It’s still an immature protocol without a lot of product support outside of Mac OS X 10.6 Server, and there aren’t a lot of places providing hosted Mac OS X 10.6 Server services. (If any of you readers know of a provider, please, let us know the URL in the comments!) The only other product I know about that does provide CardDAV is Kerio Connect, which I use for those services myself. Googling for hosted kerio connect will produce a decent number of leads to companies that offer that service.

But as I said before, if all your Macs are on Mac OS X 10.6, hosted Exchange is a legitimate, mature option, which will provide you with the most vendor.

[John Welch is IT Director for The Zimmerman Agency, and a long-time Mac IT pundit. Have a question about Macs and IT? E-mail us at macitguy [at] macworld dot com.]

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