Growth of web-based email and its perils

Web-based emails account for 1/3 of all email accounts and growing. While it is free, easy to use and accessible but is it causing more problems as well?

Pop Quiz – off the top of your head – “Name the top 4 web-based email services”. Most people will be able to rattle off a couple – the correct answer (in order of decreasing user base) is Gmail, Hotmail (soon to be, Yahoo! Mail and AOL (yes, people still use AOL).


Web-based email services are popular – almost everyone has one or multiple such accounts. People signup for different email accounts for a wide range of purposes. Perhaps to compartmentalize their online life with one for private, one for junk, one for family and et cetera. In this day and age of the Internet, retailers always want your email address to “keep in touch”, also know as spamming. So having more accounts is always handy to keep these pesky marketers away.


Another factor in why there are so many webs-based email accounts could simply be down to cost efficiency. These web-based email services are free to use with an ever-increasing amount of storage (Gmail promising to provide unlimited storage for free, for ever). In addition, there is no limit to how many of such accounts you can have. The only worry is how to keep track of the ones you have and what passwords you set for each.


Web-based email services allow accessibility from everywhere. You can access your email from your desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, public terminals and any other devices connected to the Internet. Many businesses have in fact moved off their servers and run their entire email operations in the cloud. No longer can you claim to take the night off or weekends off as you have no access.


A more extreme usage of such services is to provide cloud storage. Instead of file sharing sites, important files can be stored as email attachment or documents in the cloud. Rapid connection speeds with sufficient bandwidth makes this easy and relatively quick.


If one was to go further in-depth, suffice to say that there would be boundless reasons and even theories on the benefits on using web-based email plus why it is growing ever faster. This week MailChimp, deliverer of more than 3 billion EDMs, newsletters and other email attachment published the latest figures of the usage and growth trends of the top web-based email providers. Do see the graph below:

By June 2012, Gmail leads the pack with approximately 540 million users. Next up is Hotmail or with about 430 million users. Yahoo! Mail is reviving itself under its new CEO in the region of 380 million users. AOL rounds up the pack with close to 100 million users. These web-services account for 1.45 billion email accounts.


Here is the significance: there are 3.4 billion email accounts worldwide – with just the top 4 web-based email providers providing almost half of the world’s email accounts. Half of the world is relying on the cloud to use their personal, work, private, business, junk and other email. This is all when the cloud is still rather young and temperamental – what if all these email accounts fail? Get hacked? Lose data? Suffer server meltdowns?


According to, 294 billion emails are sent out daily, 90% of which is junk – so half of accounts being down will contribute to less junk. That is the only good point in having unreliable cloud services.


Major cloud failures in recent years alone affected users of all major web-based email providers (click to read more: Gfail, Hotfail and Yahoo! Fail).


Comcast’s “State of Hacked Accounts 2011” states that one in five email accounts gets hacked annually – that would mean in 2012, about 290 million email accounts will be hacked. Guess which kind of emails is easiest to do so? Yup, you guessed it – web-based ones in the cloud. Another horrible thing that the report says about hacking is that 62% of hacked accounts would not even know about it. So that makes 180 million accounts annually who gets hacked but not even aware of it. Hacked accounts can be utilized to send spam, steal contacts or run scams. A summary of this situation can be found here.


These figures may sound outlandish or that as a person who has never being hacked (or just ignorant of it), read the full horror story by tech reporter, Matt Honan. Honan’s experience with getting hacked is not a joke but a true cautionary tale.


Also, web-based email providers host your emails, data, files and all in the cloud. When the cloud, which hosts everything, comes crashing down, there is no backup. If one does not do email backup when the proverbial hits the fan, everything will be gone. As Murphy’s Law dictates, everything that can go wrong – will. The question to ask is: are you prepared for it?


This is not a scare-mongering tactic or an apocalyptic warning – it is more of a public service announcement to take care when using the cloud, especially with email. The ideal world would see everyone backing up their email. As more data/emails are stored in the cloud, the consequences of failures in the cloud will be more pronounced.  With a backup, come what may, at least you are protected.

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