surface book

Spark pitches the move from Yahoo to SMX mail as “bringing mail home to New Zealand”.

While that is clever marketing communications, it doesn’t begin to the tell the whole gory story of the company’s unhappy relationship with Yahoo.

Those with long memories may recall Spark moved its mail to Yahoo in 2007. At the time it was still called Telecom NZ and the Xtra broadband brand had yet to bite the dust.

Tired brand

Even then Yahoo was a tired online brand, past its sell-by date. But Spark needed a way to give customers what looked a modern web-based mail system. Yahoo had one it was ready to licence.

It wasn’t great in 2007. One of the most annoying aspects of YahooXtra Mail was the way it would display distracting over-the-top animated advertisements. Compare that with the discrete, inoffensive advertising served up by Gmail.

Anyone with an ounce of computer savvy1 signed up for Gmail and left their Xtra mail address to wither. It was possible to forward messages from one to the other, which made the process less painful. All you had to do was to wait long enough and the legitimate Xtra mail would die of neglect.

Note the word legitimate in that last sentence. YahooXtra excelled at one thing and one thing alone: delivering piles and steaming piles of spam.

Which is ironic. When Telecom NZ first switched to YahooXtra the biggest complaint was that it had overzealous spam filters. So overzealous that many small businesses could no longer get incoming communications from customers. Companies lost a huge amount of business at the time of the switch.2

The fall of the Yahoo empire

Yahoo was in decline in 2007. Its empire was crumbling and there were barbarians at the gates. Some of them got inside the gates. Or, at least, managed to get past the firmware and other defences.

We know of at least two known major security breaches at Yahoo in recent years. No doubt there are more. Reported breaches are often only the tip of the iceberg.

It took the company two years to talk about a 2014 data breach, which, at the time, was on the record as one of the largest data hauls ever.

The incident saw hackers gain Yahoo user names, email address and passwords. YahooXtra customers were also subject to a series of phishing attacks.

People I know inside Spark say the telco was furious at Yahoo over its lack of disclosure. I’m told Yahoo was famously difficult to deal with. The company would not accept any accountability and treated Spark with disdain.

There was a trapped feeling. Spark didn’t appear to have anywhere else to turn.

SMX saves the day

That was until SMX turned up. It is a New Zealand-owned cloud email company. SMX now hosts Spark’s email service. The telco says it now has more than 800,000 customer accounts running on the new system.

SMX is one of those New Zealand companies that flies under the radar most of the time. It supplies mail services to millions of users at thousands of companies. It partners with big IT brands. SMX handles spam for many government departments.

These days an ISP-operated mail service is unusual. Many don’t provide mail address to customers, they expect them to go to Gmail, to Microsoft’s Outlook.com or maybe to use tools like Facebook Messenger instead.

Spark says it moved 800,000 accounts to SMX in one of New Zealand’s biggest migration projects. At a guess, at least half of those accounts are unused or rarely used.

That Spark still feels the need to provide mail address is interesting. To the company’s credit it is good to see it hasn’t walked away from a problem that spent years in the too hard basket. On the other hand, perhaps it should have walked away from the abusive Yahoo relationship earlier.


  1. It’s easy to be smug about this. Not everyone is tech savvy today. Fewer were in 2007. For a lot of people mail was such a novelty they didn’t dare look outside the comfortable walled garden. They trusted Telecom. Yes, yes, that may look dumb today. If you doubt me go and ask your parents or grandparents. ↩︎
  2. I also remember having trouble getting YahooXtra to work with mail clients in the early days. My recall of this is vague. Can anyone confirm this? ↩︎