Chances are that you use e-mail for every kind of communication, from sending a note to Mom to closing financing for your new company. You may not care if strangers read your mom's fruitcake recipe, but what if someone you don't know intercepts your hot, new business plan? That's where e-mail encryption can help. ZixMail is one of many e-mail encryption apps that operates on both your home and work e-mail accounts. Unfortunately, it may be too complicated for its intended audience. Chances are that you use e-mail for every kind of communication, from sending a note to Mom to closing financing for your new company. You may not care if strangers read your mom's fruitcake recipe, but what if someone you don't know intercepts your hot, new business plan? That's where e-mail encryption can help. ZixMail is one of many e-mail encryption apps that operates on both your home and work e-mail accounts. Unfortunately, it may be too complicated for its intended audience.
Many features, at a price
With ZixMail, you can send and receive secure e-mail for $24 per year (after a free 30-day trial), which is less expensive than many other programs. In the ZixMail package, you get a plug-in for either Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes, a separate ZixMail e-mail client, and access to the ZixMail Web site, from which you can send and receive secure e-mail, even from a computer that doesn't have the ZixMail software installed. Unfortunately, these three pieces, much like those in QuantaMail, add up to a complicated product that's tough to figure out.
To install and set up ZixMail, you must muddle through a bunch of options. Nonetheless, the process is the easiest we've seen so far. Download the installer from the ZixMail Web site, and you're taken step-by-step through the installation and setup process. Especially pleasing is how easy ZixMail has made the usually painful process of creating and activating passwords. ZixMail splits your signature phrase--a case-sensitive password of up to 128 characters that may contain spaces and any characters--into two files, one private (kept on your PC) and one public (kept on the ZixMail servers). ZixMail lets you back up your private signature phrase in case you forget it or lose the one stored on your computer.
Of plug-ins, mail clients, and the Web
To send an encrypted message using the plug-in, compose a message in Outlook or Notes, hit the red Z button, and enter your signature phrase. Receiving mail is just as easy. When you receive an encrypted message, hit the Z button, enter your signature phrase, and voilà! To receive a ZixMail message, users of ZixMail just type in their own signature phrase. Nonusers must go to the ZixMail Web site to receive their mail and create their own signature phrase, as they do with CertifiedMail.
Pitfalls we discovered
There's more to ZixMail than a tidy plug-in. It also throws in a separate mail client and a poorly designed Web site, which foul up the process. The standalone e-mail client can be used to send and read encrypted mail when you can't use the plug-in, say, if you run Eudora instead of Outlook or Notes.
The ZixMail Web site can send messages to recipients who don't subscribe to the ZixMail service. Via the site, the recipient can securely receive and reply to your message. However, you also have to go to the ZixMail Web site to read any replies you receive; they won't come to your regular e-mail client. You can use the ZixMail Web site to read your secure e-mail, but only if the sender has specifically chosen to send the message to the Web site instead of to your usual e-mail address.
A klutzy interface isn't the end of ZixMail's problems. ZixMail doesn't automatically encrypt a reply to an encrypted message. For instance, say you receive an encrypted message containing the secret formula for Coke. If you forget to tell ZixMail to encrypt your reply, any hacker could topple the soft-drink empire!
ZixMail comes with no manual but sports competent online documentation and unlimited e-mail support, with no phone support for the $24-per-year account. However, we received answers to only 50 percent of the several e-mail support requests we submitted.
ZixMail is on the right track towards simplifying the tedious e-mail encryption process. If you need to send encrypted messages only to other ZixMail users and don't usually require much support, ZixMail may be a good choice for you. However, if you can't convince your correspondents to sign up for the service, we suggest you keep looking.