After Google chopped off the umbilical cord from the oft-used Free Edition of its Google Apps suite back in late 2012, users were left wondering where they could go for their custom email domain needs. One of the best remaining alternatives was by far Outlook.com, Microsoft's free email service which I use in place of Gmail now. I penned an extensive how-to piece on getting Outlook.com working as your own custom domain host for email last year.
How the tables have turned in just over half a year. In an about-face, Microsoft recently announced on its custom domains page for Outlook.com (called the Windows Live Admin Centre) that it is no longer accepting new applications for the service. PC World and ZDNet actually reported on this back in April, but I have been so busy with client work that I forgot to post this news over here for all the curious potential Outlook.com custom domain converts.
Here's a screenshot of the email I got in my inbox earlier this week giving me a soft-but-firm nudge to make alternate plans for my custom domain needs, namely moving them to Office 365:
Yes you read that right. As of 10 April, Microsoft silently cut off new signups for the service. And come 31 July, everyone using the service will not have any ability to add or remove accounts from their Outlook.com custom domain. For all intents and purposes, your account goes into life support mode as of the end of July.
Will your accounts still work? Yes. But you better pray that you do not need to make any changes to your account structure, as Microsoft is putting the padlock on that capability once the deadline hits in just under two months.
I made it very clear in my original how-to article that Outlook.com, as a free custom domain email host, was NEVER intended to be used for mission critical purposes like business email or other operations where accessibility was paramount. We have one customer who chose to make the decision and use Outlook.com for their primary business email, and we had some nasty outage issues to deal with back in January/February of this year (which resulted in hundreds of dollars of consulting fees from us - mind you, Office 365 was not affected during this downtime).
It was always fishy, even when I turned the service on for my own needs in writing the original piece, that the Windows Live branding was all over the website, and still is to this day. The writing was on the wall that this service was on the chopping block soon. It was only a matter of time. But as with all great free services, it was great while it lasted.
Should current custom domain users flee the service? If you are using the platform for business or mission critical needs, I would make an educated push to say you should probably move to a paid service of some sort. If you have the technical wits and free time to play around with service hopping like this (especially if you moved from Google Apps Free Edition, and didn't learn your lesson) then you may not be opposed to riding out your stay with Outlook.com.
But for all other users looking for a long-term, stable solution, I think picking up your email baggage and taking it to a supported service is probably the best course of action.
If you are looking for a paid service with an SLA and support of some kind, then two obvious choices would be Office 365 or Google Apps for Business. The cheapest of the two is Office 365, which can get you going for a mere £2.60/account per month at the basic Exchange Online Plan 1 level. Google Apps is also a good option, with a one size fits all £3.30/month option per account.
We have already received calls from some Outlook.com custom domain holders who are looking to bail onto Office 365. They made the mistake of trusting such a free service as lasting forever. With that Windows Live branding that just refused to change, I instinctively knew that the "all good things come to an end" saying was going to hold true one day.
For the truly price conscious, you can drop £1.35/month per account for Rackspace hosted webmail but keep in mind this is a plain Jane POP/IMAP service with no Exchange ActiveSync back to smartphones/tablets or Outlook for email/contacts/calendars. If you're comfortable with such limits, then this may be a perfect option for you. But if you used Outlook.com for true 2-way sync back to your phone or Outlook, this may be too big of a step back in terms of capabilities.
If your organisation is a charity or nonprofit, you do have access to excellent freebie options such as Office 365 E1 for Nonprofits which is completely free for your users. Microsoft also approves organisations on a case-by-case basis for reduced Office 365 E3 for Nonprofits pricing, which is usually brought down by about 75-80 per cent from face value (aka dirt cheap). Due to all the confusion surrounding availability of Office 365 for Nonprofits until recently, I penned an in-depth piece outlining some of the common FAQs about the offering.
In the end, there are places to take your custom email domain needs. But as Outlook.com enters life support mode for existing custom domains, you should start making plans on taking your needs elsewhere - or end up getting caught by Microsoft shutting the service's doors completely under your nose.
Derrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist who owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over eight+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specialises in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud-hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. You can reach him at derrick at wlodarz dot net