We all have some kind of free hosted e-mail account, whether it's Gmail, Yahoo mail, the mail from your ISP or all of the above. Many people rely on these mail systems to handle their day-to-day personal communications.
And businesses recognize this. It's a common practice at many companies to maintain a list of "external" e-mail addresses for employees so that when, inevitably, the company e-mail system goes down, employees still can stay in touch.
However, many businesses are now starting to wonder if they need that internal e-mail system at all. If hosted e-mail systems are good enough for the entire world, why can't they be used for business?
Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in this environment is Google, which has tailored its Gmail and Google Apps offerings for businesses of any size. In fact, a common new feature in many enterprise applications has been Gmail and Google Apps integration.
But Google isn't alone in this space.
Smaller providers, such as Zoho, offer hosted or cloud-based collaboration and e-mail systems geared for businesses, and even the big players have gotten into the game, with Microsoft offering a hosted version of Exchange and IBM just releasing an SAAS (software as a service) version of Lotus Notes.
The benefits of this kind of offering are obvious. There is no expensive and resource-intensive internal server infrastructure to maintain, and per-user license prices are often (though not always) lower than for full internal clients.
There are also drawbacks. Integration with internal systems can be difficult or even impossible with many cloud-based collaboration systems. Even when it can be done, it requires opening up internal systems to the Internet, something that may not be desirable, especially with highly sensitive applications and data.
Also, these systems can go down just as much as internal systems (as anyone who has dealt with the recent Gmail outages can attest to). And when they go down, there's no internal IT staff to run to the rescue.
Still, for many businesses, a hosted e-mail option is not only a viable choice, it's the best choice. Businesses get the benefits of not having to maintain an infrastructure and also-since these services are updated on a regular basis-see new features and capabilities without the need to go through costly software upgrades.
So, unlike your head, having your e-mail, collaboration and business apps in the cloud may actually be a good thing.