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Breaking Free of Google: Mail, Contacts and Calendars

I’ve been seeing a lot of folks on Twitter and ADN move more of their services away from Google. 512 Pixels and The Loop have both announced they’re moving away from FeedBurner and more are migrating from Gmail.

Google offer a number of services a lot of site owners use such as Search, Gmail, Google Contacts, Google Calendar, Google Analytics and FeedBurner, that people use on a daily basis. But if you want to kick the Google habit then what options are there?

I’ve been wanting to move away from Google for some time but haven’t really made the time to do so. I’ve never been really happy with Gmail with its weird IMAP implementation (due to the way Gmail uses labels) since I mainly use a mail client instead of the website and the Gmail iOS app just hasn’t been good lately. Since I’m going to be ditching Google Reader soon anyway, it’s as good as time as any to move the test of my services as well.

Over the next week or two I’ll be posting various alternatives to these services including my own experience in migrating. This particular article will deal with alternatives to Gmail, Google Contacts and Google Calendar. All the services I’ve mentioned below offer some level of spam filtering.

Rackspace

Rackspace have a number of different mail options. You can order standard IMAP accounts that costs just $2 user/month but the minimum order is 5 so you’ll need to pay at least $10 per month. If you’re just wanting mailboxes for your family or business then it’s a good idea.

For a little bit more, or if you just need one account, they also offer Microsoft Exchange services costing $10 user/month. This includes an ActiveSync license for mobile usage as well as the usual contacts and calendar syncing which Exchange does very well.

If you absolutely have to use Blackberry then you can add this to an exchange service at $10 user/month.

With both IMAP and Exchange services you get a fully managed mail service, excellent spam and filtering features as well as 25GB mailboxes. With Exchange accounts there’s also an IMAP fallback if you need to use a device or computer that doesn’t support Exchange.

Office 365

Microsoft have their own version of Google Apps called Office 365 aimed at both home and business use. Plans start from just $4 user/month for a full Exchange account with 25GB of space, less than half the price of Rackspace. There’s quite a lot of options and pricing so I recommend viewing their plan comparison page to determine what the best option is for you.

With that you get a similar service to Rackspace’s Exchange that works out cheaper but you will lack some of the optional features such as Blackberry licensing if you need to use it. Since it’s Exchange, you also get contacts and calendar syncing too and it all works in Apple Mail, Microsoft Outlook and iOS.

However, Microsoft has quite an ace up it’s sleeve with Office 365. If you go for the $12.50 user/month option, not only do you get an exchange account but each user also gets a subscription version of Microsoft Office they can use on up to 5 PCs/Macs each as well as access to the Office Web Apps.

Both Rackspace and Office 365 offer Exchange accounts so you get full mail, contacts and calendar support similar to what iCloud and Google offer. If you’re running a recent version of iOS and OS X then you’ll find it works just as well as iCloud.

Hover

Hover offer a varied pricing structure and it really depends on how many accounts you require. You can’t order accounts in a custom quantity, it’s either 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 or 150, and whilst one account starts at $20 per month, five accounts start at $40 month.

The features are a lot more restricted and the accounts start with only 2GB per month. There’s no Exchange features, meaning no contacts or calendar syncing.

Certain IMAP accounts (such as Hover and Rackspace IMAP) get a web calendar and the option to pay a couple of dollars extra to get those on your iOS device but I’d recommend just going for an Exchange account so you can use native apps on the Mac, too.

Do It Yourself

There’s absolutely no reason why you couldn’t sign up to a cheap web host and just use it for IMAP mail services since many hosts allow an unlimited number of email accounts with almost unlimited space. If you just need some basic IMAP accounts then it’s a potential option.

Another option is that if you’ve got a Mac at the office (or at home) then you could invest in OS X Server and run Mail, Contacts and Calendars from it. You’ll need to make sure you either use a service such as DynDNS if you don’t have a static IP and ensure the ports are all forwarded.

There’s also the popular Kerio Connect mail server option which is starts at $475 to cover five users with additional users starting at $27/user.

For contacts and calendars there’s a service called ownCloud which you can also run on your own server, providing CalDAV and CardDAV support.

With rolling your own hosting or home/small business solutions come serious implications for something as fundamental as mail – it’s a single point of failure. If your server experiences some downtime then you’re stuck without mail (which is especially likely on any shared hosting). It’s even worse if it’s a home server and you have a power cut or connection problem. What if you’re on holiday?

Additionally, with a self-hosted solution, you’ll need to make sure you put some form of spam protection in place as well as ensuring the server is secure (you’ll be surprised how many setups I’ve seen that have no outgoing server authentication).

I’ve dealt with small businesses who were misinformed and told to run their own mail server without someone there to maintain it and, honestly, there is no reason why any small business should choose an in-house mail server. Services like Kerio or OS X Server are designed to be regularly maintained by an experienced sysadmin, preferably with some form of server, power or connectivity redundancy. If your ISP experiences an outage, your mail goes down. If you suffer a power cut, your mail goes down. If the server doesn’t book, your mail goes down.

Services like Rackspace and Office 365 will have entire datacentres dedicated for mail routing so if one server/connection or the power goes down then your mail will still arrive. It’s really not worth the hassle or potential problems just to try and save a few coins unless you’ve got the necessary redundancy and infrastructure.

There are more services but I thought I’d highlight the more common ones. In the end, I chose Office 365 simply because their Exchange offering beat Rackspace on price quite substantially. And since I chose Exchange I also benefit from an email service that supports push.


Transferring Mail

I chose to switch to Office 365 ($4/user/month) for my email and whilst migrating messages from Gmail is a bit backwards due to the way labels are implemented over IMAP, it was relatively painless.

Before doing any sort of email migration the first thing to do is switch the MX records so your new provider is receiving the emails instead of Google. This will make it easier since all new emails will route to the new provider and your Google account mail count will remain static so you don’t miss any emails.

Gmail’s implementation of labels as folders in IMAP isn’t great but it’s the only way that their label system could do it. On the web interface of Gmail you can assign multiple labels to the same message. When viewing in IMAP, Gmail puts a copy of the same email in the label folders, effectively duplicating it.

I rarely use labels so I just deleted all labels, archived all email so that nothing was in my inbox, and then using Apple Mail, selected the All Mail folder on Gmail and went to Mailbox > Export Mailbox in the menu. The reason I exported it first was that if anything went wrong and I just dragged the emails over from Google and it messed up, I could potentially lose my messages so having this extra copy of emails to work from means if I mess up, I simply trash all the mail on the new server and start again (which I did – twice).

Once exported, re-import the archive and then drag all the emails to your new provider. Since Google also dumps the Sent emails in All Mail as well, I did a search for emails from me, then dragged them to the Sent folder.

If you are heavily dependent on labels then it’s going to be more difficult. I haven’t got an easy answer but if you use a lot of labels then you’ll need to move them little by little. However, if you make sure that every email has some sort of label (and not just archived / in the All Mail folder) then it’ll make the task much simpler.

Services that use Exchange also offer IMAP migration where you can plug in all the users and credentials for old IMAP email accounts and Exchange will migrate them. This is generally the preferred option as at least then you can clear out the duplicates after they’re migrated.

Transferring Contacts and Calendars

These are usually much easier since you can export these very easily into vCards from Google Contacts and in iCalendar format for Google Calendar. Then adding them is just the case of using Contacts or Calendar in OS X to import them. I use neither of these services so didn’t need to migrate any data but it is a lot easier than migrating mail.

There are a lot of guides about migrating services and the first/best place to check is the service provider you’re switching to. Usually they have a knowledge base full of useful information and some even offer migration services at a fee.