There's safety in numbers, goes the old saying. And that old saying is an apt one for a relatively new phenomenon - e-mail. Specifically, the larger the number of users, the safer the system should be from a quality of service perspective.
When the mail "goes down" in private domains - like my own newzgeek.com - who cares? Nobody but me and the spammers who have one less customer for their mortgages/magic reducing formula/Nigerian investment scams. When my mail goes down, I have to beg the company to get it back up ASAP. And as anyone who has ever sought assistance from IT people knows, the "softer" the tongue, the more rapid the service. In other words, you have to hide your frustration and anger - not very easy when your work or business gets hampered - or worse.
But take a large scale, large size service with tens or even hundreds of thousands of customers, and you can afford a change in tone and attitude. Suddenly, it's no longer you and no one against the world; now you have thousands of compatriots around the world who will join you in complaining directly to the company, thus relieving you of the need to play it nice. In fact, when you join thousands of others in complaining about how lousy their service, louder and angrier might make a better and more lasting impression than nice and easy. And since the marketing folk at Big E-mail Domain don't want thousands of irate complaints, a service interruption is likely to be less severe - and be dealt with more quickly - than it would be for private e-mail domain users.
Or, so you would expect. In reality, the opposite is the case, at least at some of the large Web-based e-mail service providers; problems can persist for days, or even weeks, with no response from "customer service," and they can disappear as suddenly as they appear, with no indication of what it was that went wrong. Meanwhile, you're left holding the bag, unsure as to whether to continue trusting them with with your business, or to figure out a different solution.
Most people who open a Web-based e-mail account go with one of the "big three" - Yahoo Mail, Gmail or Hotmail. Of course, there are a plethora of smaller Web mail services, usually specialized for specific audiences (like http://www.hushmail.com/, which gives you an account with PGP and other super-safe protection - although, according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hushmail, the company has a history of turning over e-mail to the government). But for general use and reliability, it's probably best to use one of the large services, which are always adding features and integrating other services. In recent months, for example, both Yahoo and Hotmail have undergone major facelifts, and Gmail occasionally increases the amount of space allocated to users (now over 4 GB).
Each service tries to match or outdo the other in features and capabilities; the latest thing, for example, is chat integration, which seems to have taken the spotlight away from spam prevention. The one thing you want in Web mail, above all others, is reliability - of the service, and its behavior on your computer.
So which one is best - not from a feature point of view, but from a reliability one? That, of course, depends on whom you ask. Gmail has a good reputation - it almost never goes down, and integrates easily with all Web browsers. Plus, it's spam filter all but guarantees that you will never come across a "questionable" message in your main mailbox. Hotmail doesn't have such a good reputation; it's known as a "spam magnet," and it's very "hard" on browsers other than Internet Explorer (actually, I've had it crash on older versions of IE).
And Yahoo? It depends: In some places and for some people, it seems to work flawlessly, but for others, it is more trouble than it's worth!
The "others," in this case are people like us, who either connect to Yahoo from within Israel, or try to use it in Hebrew. Unlike Google, Yahoo, especially in its new version, does not seem to have built in Hebrew integration (see http://digital.newzgeek.com/old/111406_yahoo.html); Hotmail has its own Hebrew version, so language isn't an issue there.
Something else about Yahoo mail: It tends to "go away" for awhile, leaving you without service for days or even weeks at a time. I've gotten dozens of complaints from readers over the years about these outages. The outages tend to cluster around specific times, and a search of the Internet indicates that other people have had the same problems at the same time - usually when Yahoo is implementing new servers. One way to test the reliability of mail servers is to check out some of the tools at http://www.trimmail.com/news/tools/.
In recent weeks, it's been happening again - Yahoo has been taking unexplained "breaks." Unexplained until now, that is. If you are a Yahoo user in Israel who has been experiencing problems in the last couple of weeks, you can thank our "friends" in - would you believe it - Iran!
That's the conclusion I've come to at least - based on this little article (http://tinyurl.com/2wuqr4), which says that Yahoo and Hotmail have begun blocking e-mail to and from IP addresses in Iran in order to comply with new US sanctions against the Islamic Republic. According to the Yahoo spokesperson quoted in the article, as an American company, "we are restricted from conducting business there - all US companies must comply with this policy."
So what does all this have to do with Israel? Well, if you look at the IP address range finder at http://tinyurl.com/jnn8q, you'll see that in the sequential numerical distribution of IP addresses in countries around the world, Israel on the list follows "Iran, Islamic Republic of."
Now of course, Israel and Iran have different IP address ranges; but in several cases, at least the first and in some cases the first two segments of several IP address sets allocated both to Israel and Iran are identical. Could a tech at Yahoo have decided to ban whole ranges because he thought that number was specific to Iran? Could the tech have accidentally added some similar-looking Israeli IP addresses to the Iran list? It's an open question, but stranger things have happened.
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