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By Omitting POP3 Email, Microsoft May Have Cut the Surface RT’s Throat

Wayne Rash is senior correspondent for eWEEK and a writer with 30 years of experience. His career includes IT work for the US Air Force.

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Microsoft’s Surface RT doesn’t support POP3 email. Wayne Rash thinks that may spell doom for the tablet

It wasn’t until I started fiddling around with a Microsoft Surface RT that I found a huge feature hole that will keep many, if not most, Internet users from getting full value from this new tablet model.

That huge hole is the inability of the Surface RT to work with Internet mail sites using POP3 (post office protocol) for email. In other words, if you use an Internet service provider that delivers email using POP, you won’t be able to get your email that way.

Troubles begin to Surface…

Microsoft SurfaceThis fact alone may explain the low sales of the Surface RT tablet, but it is an even more likely explanation for the reports of very high return volumes on the Surface RT. The fact is, when a customer shells out six hundred bucks for a slick new tablet, only to find out that they can’t use it for email, there’s a very high likelihood that they’ll pack it back into the box, head for the Microsoft store and ask for their money back. The customer’s next stop could very well be to the Apple store to buy an iPad, which does work with POP3 Internet email.

I can’t say that Microsoft is keeping this inability to work with the single most common email delivery system a secret, because it’s not. If you happen to check on the Microsoft website you’ll find out that the Surface and Windows 8 do not support POP. There’s even a list of workarounds you can use.

Unfortunately, most people don’t think to check this until they’ve already bought their device and are trying to set it up.

It is possible that many Windows 8 users will not notice since they probably aren’t using the Windows 8 mail app anyway. Those people with full computers are likely using Outlook or they’re using a third-party email client such as Thunderbird. When they upgraded from Windows 7, the email app stuck around, and they’ve probably never even tried the Windows Mail app.

You don’t have that option in Windows RT (the Windows version designed for ARM based tablets). There are no third-party email apps that support POP. Instead, your only choice for an email app is Windows Mail. Microsoft helpfully suggests you switch your internet email to IMAP (Internet mail access protocol) or EAS (Exchange ActiveSync) mailboxes. This is a nice idea, but most of the ISPs I could find don’t offer either one of those.

The other choice that Microsoft mentions is to have the web service, Outlook.com gather your POP email for you and present it in your Outlook.com mailbox online. In other words, Microsoft is trying to force you to use its cloud-based email service instead of the email you’ve been using. While setting up Outlook.com so it can collect your internet email isn’t particularly hard, it’s one more step most people probably don’t want to bother with.

Who do you trust with your mail?

E-mail concept on white background. Isolated 3D image © – Fotolia.comBut there’s a bigger problem. How many people want Microsoft handling all of their email? But an even bigger issue is that using Outlook.com means that your mail stays on the server, not on your tablet. While this isn’t a big problem normally, what happens when you can’t get to the Internet? Suppose, for example, you’re trying to read your email while traveling? Now what?

There are other alternates. You can decide to have Google collect your POP email instead and run everything through Gmail. Because Windows Mail can handle Gmail just fine, you accomplish exactly the same thing, including the part about trying to read mail when you can’t have your WiFi turned on.

There are plenty of people who use one of the big webmail services such as Gmail or Yahoo mail. They’ll be just fine with Windows RT, but the vast majority of email users won’t be fine. They’re faced with changing email providers, using a third-party email forwarder such as Google or Microsoft, or not getting email.

The problem is that for most people, email is a significant reason for using the Internet. It’s also a significant reason for using a tablet device. Of course people use tablets for lots of reasons, but being able to read and respond to email without using up data minutes on their phones or sitting at their desks is one of them. By making the decision not to support POP email, Microsoft has just marginalised all of those people.

There are other issues. Google has in the past admitted scanning the content of user emails as a way to target advertising. Microsoft probably does the same thing. And there’s also the potential for abuse. Right now Gmail and Outlook webmail are free. But will they stay free once they become indispensable for millions of people? Or is this the next subscription service that slowly escalates like your cable bill?

If the reports of large numbers of returns of Microsoft Surface tablets are true, and I think they are, the difficulty of using this most basic function of an Internet device could be a major reason. By insisting on cutting out POP email, Microsoft may be killing the sales of Windows RT forever.

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Originally published on eWeek.