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During its annual Worldwide Developers Conference yesterday, Apple laid out some pretty exciting upgrades to its iCloud service, but as is often the case with its big keynote announcements, there are always a few extra details that get omitted for time, and in the case of the new iCloud+ service, there’s one pretty big one that Apple didn’t mention on stage at all.
A note hidden away on Apple’s iOS 15 preview page reveals that iCloud Mail users will soon be able to use a custom email domain for the first time ever.
Although Apple’s online services have transitioned through several domain names over the years, from the original mac.com domain introduced 20 years ago with iTools (later known as .Mac), to the me.com domain of the MobileMe years (2008-2010), and finally to the icloud.com domain that we all know today, users have never been able to natively use a personalized domain name with the service.
In fact, even the older mac.com and me.com domains are only available to those who originally had those addresses. Users who signed up in the iTools/.Mac days and stayed on board all the way through to the iCloud era can receive mail at mac.com, me.com, or icloud.com, while new users are limited to the icloud.com domain.
However, this is all set to change later this year when Apple fully rolls out iCloud+, allowing you to use any custom domain name of your choice, similar to what’s available on other email services like Google Workspace, Microsoft Office 365, and smaller services like Fastmail.
In other words, rather than using an email address like email@example.com* you could instead set up a personal domain like “hollington.ca” and then set firstname.lastname@example.org* to be your iCloud email address.
(*Not a real email address)
To be fair, custom domain names have mostly been the exclusive purview of business-class email services, for obvious reasons. Microsoft briefly toyed with adding custom domains for Outlook.com Premium users in a very limited fashion a couple of years ago, but officially abandoned it earlier this year.
So, in this sense Apple is actually moving ahead of the competition by providing custom domains on a consumer-grade email service.
How Will This Work?
At this point, we really don’t know much about custom domains in iCloud+ Mail beyond the single paragraph shared on Apple’s iOS 15 preview page. This simply says you’ll be able to “personalize” your iCloud Mail address with a custom domain name, and invite family members to use it as well.
Personalize your iCloud Mail address with a custom domain name, and invite family members to use the same domain with their iCloud Mail accounts.
This suggests that the use of the domain will be limited to those who are part of your Family Sharing group, which sort of makes sense for the type of service this is. To be clear, Apple is not promoting this in any way for businesses or other organizations — it’s clearly a personal family feature.
The bigger unanswered question is how users will go about setting this up. Apple likes to make things as simple as possible, yet the process of registering a custom domain and properly configuring it for email is anything but simple for many users.
Business-grade services like Google Workspace and Microsoft Office 365 expect that the person setting it up has the technical know-how to accomplish this, but that’s unrealistic for a consumer-level service like iCloud.
This is actually one of the biggest obstacles to personal email services offering support for custom domains. When Microsoft introduced this feature for Outlook.com Premium subscribers back in 2018, it partnered with GoDaddy to simplify the process, which still ended up being a bit of a mess.
We expect that Apple isn’t going to expect users to figure this out for themselves at all. Instead, it will likely offer some form of custom domain registration and hosting services, whether directly or via a trusted partner to enable iCloud+ users to set up their custom personal or family domain name in as few clicks as possible.
While this has the potential to be a great feature for the person who finds the idea of setting up a custom domain name too complicated to deal with, we’re not sure more tech-savvy users should start celebrating and making plans to move their custom domains back to iCloud Mail just yet.
There’s no indication that Apple plans to expand iCloud Mail in any other way, such as allowing the use of aliases for custom domains, nor even how it will work with existing icloud.com email addresses, so it’s very unlikely it’ll offer the more sophisticated features of other big email providers like Google, Microsoft, and Fastmail.
In fact, Fastmail deserves special mention here as it’s a pretty interesting contrast to the features offered by iCloud Mail. About six years ago, Fastmail partnered with Apple to build in direct support for Push Notifications for the standard iOS Mail app — and it’s actually done a better job of supporting this feature than Apple’s own iCloud service.
While iCloud broke new ground ten years ago by offering immediate notifications of new mail messages on your iPhone, it only does this when new messages arrive. In other words, you’ll see the badge count increase on your iPhone’s Mail icon when a new email message comes into your iCloud Mail account, but if you read the message on another device, such as your Mac or iPad, it won’t decrease until you either open the Mail app to update it, or another new message comes in to cause it to refresh in the background.
By comparison, Fastmail sends out the same kind of Push Notifications to the iOS Mail app whenever there’s any change in your inbox, including when you read and delete messages on another device. The result is that your unread badge count on the Mail icon gets updated almost immediately, no matter which device you’re using to read and manage your email. You can even set up push notifications for other mail folders in your Fastmail account as well.
What’s significant here is that these are all features that Apple has built into the iOS Mail app that even its own iCloud Mail service doesn’t take full advantage of.
It’s a very odd omission for a company that clearly wants its users to have as seamless of an experience as possible across their iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Apple has pioneered features like Handoff and Continuity that are absolutely magical, and yet users of iCloud Mail still have to deal with stale badge counts that lead them to believe that they have new messages waiting for them, only to tap the icon to open the Mail app and discover that they’ve already been read, filed, or deleted on another device.
Needless to say, we’re certainly hoping that Apple will use this opportunity to take iCloud+ Mail to the next level and add some of these improvements that will make it a viable service for more advanced users.