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Webmail

Last Edit: 10/01/17

Webmail, as the name would suggest, is a website which offers users the ability to write, read, and edit electronic mail. Before webmail was introduced by companies such as Yahoo!, a standalone program was needed to access email, called an email client, Eudora and Thunderbird are two such examples of an email client.

One of the purposes of webmail is for easier access to email. The drawback to an email client is that it needs to be installed onto a computer, whereas webmail can be accessed by any computer with Internet access and a browser installed. This provides increased accessibility, because a user can use webmail to access email from an increased amount of potential computers.

The World Wide Web was only an idea in 1989, so it's obvious that webmail was created after this date. It's generally accepted that a number of people began the process of developing webmail at the same time, from 1994 to 1995. It was soon after that date that Hotmail began developing it's own free webmail service, which was eventually purchased by Microsoft in 1997.

Commercial webmail services have been launched by countless online companies, and are usually offered by most Internet Service Providers. Some of the most successful stand alone webmail services include Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo Mail. Gmail (Google Mail) altered the landscape of webmail by offering a storage capacity that was higher than webmail with a monthly fee. This made paid for webmail commerical redundant, and has forced webmail companies to think of other ways to monatize their service, such as targeted advertising.

Webmail and email clients are not always compatible when the POP3 mail protocol is used, whereas there is no such compatibility issues with the popular IMAP4 mail protocol. There is no standard protocol for how email content is rendered, therefore it differs on each webmail service.

Are free email accounts mostly Web based email services?

That is correct: the majority of free email accounts/services/providers are found upon the World Wide Web. Email dates back decades, and was part and parcel of the first computer networks which later became known as the Internet. The Internet only became used by the general public in the early 1990's: when the World Wide Web was designed in the same period and launched for commercial use after 1992. Email became one of the key selling points of the Internet, and Webmail was likewise a key service/selling point of the World Wide Web.

Email is a standalone protocol/application/service found upon computer networks, and should not be confused with the World Wide Web. However, the two became amalgamated in the early genesis of the World Wide Web, and free email services like Yahoo! and Hotmail were launched in 1996. To begin with these free email accounts were hampered by a lack of functions: low storage capacity of say 1-10mb; no spam protection; no virus protection. The majority of these free providers also had a "premium" "paid" account service which featured these types of functions: better storage etc. It was the launch of Gmail - from Google - which revolutionized Webmail again: Gmail was launched in 2004, and is/was was a free Webmail service which gave functions better than those offered by "premium" "paid" account services. Gmail was funded by advertising. Subsequently the days of "premium" "paid" email account services were numbered, and the majority of free email providers followed Google's advertising model.

The advantage of Webmail is that it can be accessed from any computer connected to the Internet and which has a Web browser installed. The reason why there are "free" email accounts is that you have to register a username with the service providers domain name: therefore you can only pick username@yahoo.com or username@hotmail.com etc. For users who want their own unique domain name, they will have to register the domain name - such as freeemailaccounts.org.uk - which costs a fee per annum, and will have to find a host which will provide email services for that domain name - which usually costs a fee. Therefore, the reason why you can have a free email accounts at Gmail or Mail.com: is because you have to use their domain name, which is of course great advertisement for their website whenever you send an email using your account.

When were webmail services first launched?

In a previous article on this website, I have described how the majority of free email account services are Webmail account services. The basics first: the World Wide Web was launched as a publicly available service on the 6th of August, 1991; commercial use of the World Wide Web was allowed soon after, and by 1996 the majority of big business had a foot hold on the World Wide Web.

Email - being one of the most widely used applications on the Internet - was not initially available on the World Wide Web: meaning, Webmail did not exist in 1991-1993, when the World Wide Web was first released to the public. Webmail - the amalgamation of the Web and Email - was worked upon by a number of individuals between 1994-1995, which resulted in products such as Webex and WWW Mail.

By 1996, the commercial possibilities of Webmail became apparent and successful Webmail services - such as Hotmail and RocketMail - were purchased by Microsoft and Yahoo! soon after. These two Webmail services have continued to the present day - 2013 - to be two of the largest Webmail services available to users the world over. The only recent Webmail service - which has made a significant dent in the usage levels of these services - is Google's Gmail service.

Can I change the address of my free webmail account?

A definitive answer cannot be given, as email service providers differ: however, it is highly unlikely that you can change the address of a free email account once it's been created. By definition, with a free email account, you need to use the domain name of the provider, such as: @yahoo.co.uk, @hotmail.co.uk, @aol.co.uk, @gmail.co.uk etc. To use another domain name, you will either have to register it yourself - which will cost a fee - or pay an email service a fee to make them register one for you. Obviously the account will not be a "free email account" at that stage. Therefore, it is pretty much certain you cannot change the domain name segment of a free email account. Then we have the user ID segment of an email address, such as: johnsmith@, roseyevans@ etc. There is a slight chance that some service providers will allow you to change this segment of an email address; though I am yet to come across one. Usually, email providers suggest you either make a new address - it's free, so why not - or to use their "alias" function to alter your public profile.

Is it easy to delete a free webmail account?

It differs from provider to provider; on the whole I would suggest that it is easy to delete/terminate a free webmail account. With Yahoo!, for example, all you need to do is visit the "Account Termination" page, then input your UserID, password and a CAPTCHA code. The majority of other webmail providers provide a similar simple termination procedure. Terminating an account should not be decided upon lightly; you will not be able to reactivate a deleted account, and if you use the account details to login to other services, then this will be disabled as well. Yahoo! UserID's can now be used as an OpenID - for using websites such as Youtube - so, deleting a Yahoo! account may have an impact in this scenario as well. Typically, I would advise users to simple let their free webmail account become inactive: the advantage to having an inactive account - for say 6+months - is that you can reactivate the account in an emergency (if you have login details for another service tied to that email account, for example). It is hard to envisage the drawbacks to simple letting a free account go inactive, rather than taking the drastic step of terminating the account.

Do I need to download and install a program to instant message with my webmail?

On the whole you do need to download and install an independent client progam to begin instant messaging with your webmail service; such as Yahoo! or Aol. However, due to the modern Ajax inspired GUI's; some services, such as Hotmail, allow rudimental instant messaging when logged into the Web page of their webmail service. However, this is rarely the case; to take full advantage of the wealth of features inherent in instant messaging, you will need to install the independent client program. The size and function of instant messaging programs is similar: measuring in the region of 300x600 pixels. The programs are usually loaded at the startup of the operating system; with the option to automatically login when the computer is fully booted up. On older computers, or users with a slow Internet connection, loading an instant messaging program at startup can significantly impact upon the time it takes the computer to fully boot up. Likewise, when the user is first logged into the instant messaging service: there may be advertisements which pop-up at the same time; which can prove a frustrating aspect of these programs. Some of the most popular instant messaging programs are currently: AIM, eBuddy, ICQ, Skype, Windows Live Messenger, Xfire, and Yahoo! Messenger.

Are some webmail accounts integrated with instant messaging services?

Yes they are: the three most widely used instant messaging services - which are integrated with their email service - are: Hotmail/MSN Messenger; Aol/Aol Messenger; and Yahoo!/Yahoo! Messenger. Whilst, in the past, Yahoo!, for example, only integrated their messenger program with their email service, they now allow you to integrate their email service with MSN Messenger. This is not always the case however: as some of the messenger programs are not compatible with competing webmail services. Instant messaging programs actually predate the modern Internet: having been designed for computer networks dating back to the 1970's. The first widely used Internet messaging programs were launched in the early to mid 1990's: most prominently AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ. Yahoo! and Hotmail launched their webmail services in 1996, and their instant messaging programs a little later. Apart from ICQ, there really is not many independent instant messaging services which compete successfully with the aforementioned three programs. Obviously the combination of free webmail and integrated messaging programs is a big selling point to entice new users to sign up for email accounts. The business model of these services is usually funded by targeted advertisements.

What languages and operating systems are supported by webmail and email clients?

It will be dependent upon the specific webmail provider and email client application. However, I can make some general suggestions on what should be supported by well known and popular products from both webmail/email clients. When it comes to operating systems, the following three operating system platforms should be compatible/supported,

  1. Windows
  2. Mac OS X
  3. Linux

Languages spoken in most large countries should also be supported, typically: Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Basque, Belarusian, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, Frisian, Gaelic, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil and Turkish. When it comes to languages, typically it's European languages and a splattering of Asian languages which are supported. Support for African and more obscure central/far east Asian languages are unusual to come across.

Can I manage my free webmail account with an email client application?

It is possible, but the webmail account must have support for one of two email protocols:

  1. POP
  2. IMAP

These protocols are used by email client applications to retrieve email messages from mail servers - where the email messages are stored. Luckily most popular webmail services - including Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo! Mail - provide support for both POP3 and IMAP. This means they are compatible with email client applications, such as Thunderbird, and therefore can be managed by them. The three aforementioned webmail providers do not - currently - charge for being able to use third party applications for accessing and sending incoming/outgoing email. However, it may take a little work to correctly setup your webmail account to be POP/IMAP enabled: this should be located in the settings section of your account. Some of you may be wondering why you would want to use a third party application to manage your webmail: well, you will not have not have to deal with targeted advertisement, and, most conveniently, you can manage multiple webmail accounts from one location.

Can I send a SMS text message with a free webmail account?

This is a service provided by some email account providers; whether or not it is offered on their free account service is subject to change. The process of sending an SMS message via an email account - if the provider supports it - is straight forward: there will usually be an additional option, on or next to the "compose message" button. Then all you need to do is enter the mobile number of the recipient and compose the message much the same as you would for a "standard" brief email message. Usually there is a character limit of around about 150 characters for a text message. Email and SMS are natural bed fellows; due to them both being text messaging systems. The drawback to sending text messages via an email account is that mobile networks are not always willing to play game and offer compatibility with a "free" text messaging service. SMS text messaging is an extremely lucrative service provided by mobile networks; infact they had planned on making it free until they realised how lucrative and began charging. Therefore, it is debatable whether full support/compatibility will ever be the case for free email accounts and mobile networks in the United Kingdom - as of 2013.

Are there webmail accounts which can manage multiple webmail addresses?

Yes there are: some webmail providers allow you to create an account and make multiple different email addresses for it. Then there are features - such as mail.com mail collectors - within some email accounts which allow you to manage email addresses from other webmail providers. This means that you can receive messages from Yahoo!, Hotmail, Gmail, and Mail.com all within the same account. Email accounts which have this feature are sometimes referred to as "Universal access accounts". Email clients - such as Thunderbird - also have the ability to manage multiple email addresses; however, they are not as convenient, as you need to download and install the application, whereas with a webmail account - with the ability to manage multiple addresses - they can be accessed from any computer. Managing multiple email addresses from one account can be a real time saving feature; it's fairly common for users to sign-up for multiple email addresses so they can reserve one for: personal friends and family; another for acquaintances; and one for business.

Why do people reference Oddpost in relation to free webmail services?

Oddpost was a webmail service - launched and in service in the early 1990's - which charged a monthly/annual fee. Oddpost was not an exceptionally successful company in terms of user uptake; however it was quite revolutionary in how it was designed: it used JavaScript to make it's interface run faster than the majority of other webmail service. The way Oddpost was designed was noticed by a number of it's direct competitors; it is widely acknowledged that Google's Gmail service was inspired - in it's user interface - by Oddpost. Yahoo!, obviously rattled by the release of Gmail in 2004, also took note of Oddpost, and purchased the company in 2004. The Yahoo! Mail general user interface is now designed and based upon the JavaScript/Ajax code which Oddpost formulated in the early 1990's. Therefore, Oddpost, whilst being a relatively small player in terms of commercial success, has had a large impact upon the design of two of the largest webmail services currently in existence: Yahoo! and Gmail.

Have you any tips for making a password for my webmail account?

An important part of adminstrating any online account is choosing a suitable password. It is fairly common for people to create passwords which are easy to remember; which is usually a mistake, as a password which is easy to remember is usually easier to crack/hack. Hackers who attempt to gain entry into an account often use "brute force" security tools: such as programs which will use a dictionary to try hundreds of thousands of word combinations in an attempt to guess a password. Therefore, security experts advise against using words and personal information within a password. Basically, a password has to be anonymous and impersonal to the user who creates it; of course, it will harder for the user to remember, but at the advantage of being more secure. When creating a password it should be over 8 characters in length, and the more characters the better. You should use a combination of upper and lower case characters, and a combination of letters and numbers: an example of this would be "cbYUop89io67NM".

How do I get a personalised webmail address?

It is a fairly simple process: however, management of a personalised email address will take some fore thought. With a free webmail account you will need to use the domain name of the provider, such as: @gmail.com, @yahoo.com or @hotmail.com. With a personalised email address, you will have a unique domain name, such as: @johnsmith.com etc. However, it will cost a fee to register a domain name, so as to have a personalised email address; this fee is usually in the region of £5 - £20 per annum. There are numerous companies online which will allow you to register a domain name, the problem is that not all of them will offer management of the domain name for emailing purposes. And, if they do offer management of email, it may not be in a convenient manner. Another way for registering a personalised email address is through existing email services. For example, the Thunderbird email client application has a feature for creating a personalised email address, and Yahoo! Plus account allows you to register a personalised email address. Both of these services already offer award winning management of email. However, both of these services will cost a fee, and you can only use a domain name which has not already by registered.

What is the phishing threat to my new webmail account?

Phishing is posing a serious security issue to all email accounts; whether they are a free webmail account or a personalised domain name account. Phishing is the act of creating an email which purports to be from someone it is not, with the intention of gaining personal/payment/login details from the recipient. Commonly, phishing emails are doctored to look like they are from a bank or a government body, asking for password or personal details due to some form of administrative error. Phishing emails can be convincing, and have fooled many unsuspecting recipients into handing over their personal details. It should be noted that banks, in particular, never ask for passwords or any personal details via an email. Due to the threat of phishing, it is rare to nonexistent for businesses to ask for any details via an email; instead, they will provide a unique URL via an email, so you can login to their website to provide/alter any of the above. However, some phishing emails attempt to replicate the above, but provide a URL to a false/fake website to harvest your details. Therefore, always double check the URL you are visiting via an email message is a genuine one.

Why do webmail providers still charge for "plus" accounts?

It's a good question: as I assume you already know, webmail providers used to/do offer accounts which are free and those for which they charge a monthly/annual fee. In the past, circa 1996-2004, free email accounts used to offer a low amount of storage and a lack of combative features. The launch of Gmail in 2004 was a game changer, as it provided a large storage amount and extensive features for free. While "plus" accounts which charged a fee became less common, the notion did not entirely die a death. Webmail providers became more inventive: Yahoo! for example provide a "business" email account which allows it's users to create a personalised domain name and custom email addresses. Obviously the one drawback with free email accounts is the fact you have to use the providers domain name in the email address: @yahoo.co.uk etc. Alongside customising the address, the plus accounts have pushed the features boundaries out further: with unlimited mail storage and advanced administrative tools. While the majority of users will not be interested in a "plus" account: they still serve a purpose for individuals and businesses who wish to convey a unique/professional persona.

Can I send and receive emails via my mobile phone?

This depends on the email provider: not all webmail providers - as of 2013 - offer this possibility, although some do, such as Google's Gmail service. Google launched it's Gmail mobile phone application in 2006, but it relays on the mobile phone being capable of running a Java application. The Gmail mobile phone application is feature rich: allowing users to send attachments, view photos, and administer their account in much the same way as they can on a home computer. Other major webmail providers also - as of 2013 - provide mobile access to their email services: Yahoo! being a prime example.

Alongside accessing free webmail services via your mobile phone, there is also the option to download email clients for mobile devices; meaning you can access all your email accounts via your mobile phone. ProfiMail is an example of an email client for a mobile phone, and has versions designed for Android and Symbian mobile phones. Other mobile email clients, such as Mailwithme, are capable of supporting access to POP3, IMAP, POP3/SSL, IMAP/SSL, Hotmail and Gmail. The majority of mobile email clients require a mobile phone which is capable of supporting Java applications.

Why can't I send emails from my free webmail address?

This is probably because your account has been suspended due to suspicious activity. The reason why this can occur: is if you have sent an email to someone who has tagged it as spam, or, if you have sent a large amount of emails which have remained unread. Another possibility: is that your account has been hacked/hijacked and used by a malicious individual to send a large amount of spam/phishing emails. If that is the case, then you will need to reset the password on your account and contact the service administrator to explain the situation and get your account untagged as a "security risk". Of course, the above only applies if you have been unable to send emails for a prolonged period of time, and get error messages such as "suspicious activity". All free email services have periods of time when maintenance is needed and their service becomes substandard; therefore, you should wait a few hours, or a day, before panicking that any of the above is applicable. Luckily, however, even if your account has been suspended, you can usually receive emails from friends and family, you are simple blocked from sending any.

Why do the emails sent from my free webmail account appear as spam to friends?

It could be due to sending an email from a new IP address: hotmail and other major free email account providers have sophisticated systems in place to combat spam, one of which is building up a trust network of IP addresses. Each time you send an email from a specific account and IP address, hotmail, for example, will build up a record of who you send the email to, the volume of emails sent, whether it was read, the subject of the email; of course, in an anonymous fashion, with the desire the flag the account as trusted or not in terms of spam. Sometimes, users share an IP address with other users, such as on university networks etc; this can lead to your account being flagged as a "spam risk" due to other users on the network/IP address sending spam in the past. Such IP address verification systems are also designed to combat spoofing and phishing attempts, which may have hijacked your IP address/email account through nefarious means. If you believe your email account may have been tagged as a spam/spoofing/phishing risk due to one of the above reasons, or something along the lines of the above, then it is best to contact the support/administrators of your email provider to rectify the issue.

Do free webmail accounts provide unlimited storage of messages?

Yes: some of them do, but by all means, not all of them. Historically, if we look back, the storage capacity of free email accounts - we are basically referring to webmail accounts - was meager. For example, Yahoo! provided a storage capacity of only 25MB in 2002. The launch of Google's Gmail - in 2004 - set about a chain reaction, where webmail providers began to compete amongst each other to provide the largest amount of free storage. This culminated in Yahoo! offering unlimited storage by 2007. However, on the whole, most free accounts do have a storage limit of around 1GB-10GB; which in reality, should be more than enough to meet the needs of virtually any user. You would suspect the only time a user would require 10GB of storage is when the account becomes the victim of emailing spam/bombing. Some users have been disgruntled by the advertising blurb of some providers - like Microsoft - who have marketed their free accounts as having "virtually unlimited storage" when in fact it does/did have a storage limit of 5GB.

What does a webmail anti-virus feature protect against?

Well, obviously viruses, but I am sure you are referring to what does it specifically protect against. Email, at it's root, is a text-only messaging service; only through the addition of extra protocols - essentially MIME: Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions - can email support extra features such as: HTML formatting and attachments. There are still email services which only support text only emails. The advantage of text only emails is that they are safe: there is little in the way of a security risk with a text only email. For viruses to pose a risk to users: the email needs to be MIME encoded and to include either a file attachment or some form of HTML code embedded within the message content. The security hazard - with file attachments especially - with MIME encoded email messages is that viruses can lurk within them. In the past this posed a serious security risk as the majority of free webmail services did not include adequate anti-virus protection. That is not the case today: anti-virus features of webmail and email products are installed so as to scan every attachment and HTML encoded email for viruses. Quite often email messages will include a link within the message to a Web address which will install a viruses on your computer. While anti-virus features of email products are not 100% effective, they do provide an adequate security barrier against the majority of harmful emails.

Why is webmail marketed as convenient access?

Because a webmail service can usually be accessed by any computer with a modern Web browser and a working Internet connection. While obscure webmail services may run into compatibility issues with some Web browsers; you can be rely on the fact that popular webmail services such as, Yahoo! and Gmail, will be compatible with Web browsers such as: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Google Chrome. Before Webmail became popular, circa 1996, users tended to access and send email via a standalone "email client" application. Email clients are still popular today: due to the amount of features they offer, and the ability to add any email account to them. The drawback with webmail - well free webmail accounts - is that you have to use the domain name of the service provider: such as @yahoo.co.uk. However, the standalone "email client" application has it's own drawback: in that it needs to be downloaded and installed onto a computer, and also setup to work with a specific email account. This is hardly convenient - when compared to webmail - because there is only one computer the email account can be accessed upon. Therefore, it is indeed correct to assert that webmail is convenient: as virtually every computer has a Web browser and a working Internet connection, whereas, most computers will not have a specific email client installed upon them.