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ComputerworldUK tests Amazon's WorkMail email app against Gmail and Outlook. Is AWS WorkMail the best webmail for your business?

Online email services are increasingly cheap and easy to set up for businesses that want to move their email into the cloud and keep employees connected when working on the move.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) entered the increasingly crowded market for cloud-based email at the beginning of 2015 with WorkMail - another expansion to its growing portfolio of enterpise software and services - before making it generally available to the EU region early in 2016.

With WorkMail, users can access their account through Microsoft Outlook, a native app in their web browser, or through the iOS and Android email applications.

But with a raft of well-established cloud email services already available, can AWS compete against the likes of Microsoft and Google? (For more on the best email provider for your business, see our piece: 8 best email providers for business 2016.)

AWS WorkMail: Features

WorkMail is very keen to promote its built in security features, which are in line with those of most AWS services. Encryption is managed through the AWS Key Management Service and all data is automatically encrypted “at rest” using your own encryption keys. Data in transit is encrypted using industry-standard SSL.

There is an easy-to-use option of deciding which region you would like your data stored in, which helps with latency and compliance concerns. 

These guarantees haven’t stopped some commentators voicing concerns over how Amazon will handle your data for e-commerce purposes, or if asked to hand over communications by law enforcement. This is of particular concern as the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill passes through Parliament this year.

In comparison, Gmail offers similar encryption guarantees, some compliance certificates and admin tools for verification and access control. Outlook only offers enterprise-grade compliance and security features, such as encryption, from its E3 and E5 enterprise tiers and Microsoft doesn’t automatically encrypt emails.

WorkMail is mobile optimised, with system admins having the ability to enforce device encryption, require that devices lock, specify password strength requirements, and wipe devices remotely using the AWS Management Console.

AWS WorkMail: Web client

The web client itself is very similar to that of rivals Gmail and Outlook.

The look and feel is extremely simple, with the usual inbox, outbox, sent and deleted items listed along the left hand side of the page. WorkMail more closely resembles Gmail than the feature-rich Outlook in this aspect, including a folder-based system for organising your inbox and tabs for calendar and contacts.

© AWS WorkMail

WorkMail naturally integrates with WorkDocs also, so that teams can collaborate on documents much like with Google Drive and Microsoft SharePoint. There is also an integrated calendar feature which is in line with the rival services.

AWS WorkMail: Getting started

AWS brought the WorkMail app out of preview for general European users, via it’s Ireland region, in January. 

To get an email domain your company must be registered with Amazon Web Services (AWS). 

Once registered, log into the console and make sure to change your region to Ireland in the top right hand corner (we were automatically assigned to Oregon) and select WorkMail from the services tab or the Enterprise Apps section.

You can create a new organisation and personalised email domain in the cloud, or connect the WebMail service up with your on-premises directory to enable existing users to access the platform.

Setup takes around 20 minutes (I am now the proud owner of the email domain [email protected]) if you are starting from scratch and not migrating an existing directory. Mailboxes will be encrypted with the Service Default Key in your account. Later, you can manage your organisation by adding mail domains, users, groups and resources, and mobile device policies.

AWS WorkMail: Pricing

Amazon WorkMail is the cheapest of the three main options, priced at $4 (£2.80) per user per month, which includes 50GB of storage per user. This can be bundled with WorkDocs for an added $2 per user per month. 

Gmail apps have just two pricing tiers, base for £3.30 per user, per month, and premium at £6.60. Base offers 30GB storage, HD video meetings via Hangouts, 24/7 support and bundles in Google Docs, Sheets and Slides. Premium comes with unlimited data storage and advanced admin controls.

Outlook comes as part of an Office 365 subscription, which has six tiers, all of which are detailed in this breakdown, with Essentials starting at £3.10 per user per month.

AWS WorkMail: Competition

Microsoft offers cloud-based Outlook apps for mobile devices and an online version of your inbox via an Office 365 log-in. Yahoo and Gmail have business email options that users of the consumer products will be familiar with.

In reality most users are happy to use the mail app on their phone by plugging these mailboxes in, such as Apple Mail. Android users will typically use the pre-loaded Gmail app on Android. This means new email platforms face an uphill battle to acquire new customers.

Dropbox acts as a warning to companies trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to email. The document storage and collaboration company acquired the popular Mailbox app for a reported $100 million in 2013, but killed the company off just two years later.

In his excellent piece on the subject The Verge’s Casey Newton said: “The market for consumer productivity apps, which spurred companies like Dropbox and Evernote to multi-billion-dollar valuations, has proven to be mostly a mirage. Businesses are increasingly happy to buy software for their employees; people are often loath to buy software for themselves. And for all it did right, Mailbox never became anything more than an alternate user interface for other companies’ email servers. There was a lot of intelligence in it, but no money.”

AWS WorkMail: Verdict

Don’t expect AWS WorkMail to change the way you use email. In essence it is just another email server that will bear a striking resemblance to any popular service you have used in the past. It is easy to set up and manage, and the web client is practical without trying anything innovative in terms of functionality and design.

If your company uses AWS services already it may be worth setting up your email domain through WorkMail for the sake of convenience. However if you are already using Gmail or Outlook I wouldn’t hurry to migrate over. 

(For more on the best email provider for your business, see our piece: 8 best email providers for business 2016.)