It has been stated that email is the "killer application" of the Internet — in other words, the one use of the Internet that has boosted its popularity more than any other use. This statement is well supported by the fact that the sheer volume of email continues to grow every year since it became widely available.
According to The Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, the year 2004 saw 76.8 billion messages… per day! That figure is projected to double within four years. 651 million people around the world now use email regularly. That number is expected to grow steadily during the next four years, reaching 850 million users by the end of 2008.
The ability to send messages with attachments to anyone in the world with Internet access, at little or no cost, has had a profound influence upon modern communication. While there are some downsides, such as the burden of spam, the many benefits of email will likely ensure that it will not lose any of its popularity.
E-Mail Local vs. Web-Based
When the Internet first emerged, all email messages were sent and received using email client applications, running locally on each person's or group's computer. With this approach, the user's email client program downloads all of the incoming messages from a mail server, which is typically a computer on the user's network dedicated to email management.
For most Internet users, the mail server from which they get their messages is part of the computer network owned by their Internet service provider (ISP). For instance, an ISP named "Example Internet" might instruct all of their customers to set up their email clients to send and receive messages to a server with the address "mail.example.com". Some of the technical terms you might hear associated with this are POP3, SMTP, and IMAP.
With this localized approach to email, the user can download all newly received messages at once, and then read each new message. They can delete each message or file it away in a folder (typically a directory on their computer). They can also create new messages or reply to received ones. Any messages they send are uploaded by their email client to the mail server, from whence it goes out over the Internet to the intended recipient's mail server.
In contrast, Web-based email services involve the user logging into the service's website (after providing a username and password), and seeing all of their newly received messages listed on a Web page. They can perform many of the same tasks as with local email management, but the primary difference is that the messages remain out on the Web, and normally only attachments are downloaded to the user's computer.
Despite the growing popularity of Web-based email, many people continue to handle their online conversations within their favorite email programs, without the use of any Web browser. There are advantages to this approach: Most email programs have a lot more features than Web accounts, such as the ability to create sub-folders, control backups, synchronize address books with other programs, define visible and audible alerts for different kinds of messages, and fine-tune spam filters that oftentimes get better results than those of "webmail" services.
If you have dial-up service with your ISP, you can download all of your new messages at once, disconnect from the Internet to free up the phone line, read and reply to your new messages whenever you like, and designate your replies to be sent out the next time you connect to the Internet. This has the added benefit of allowing you time to reconsider your replies, which can be especially handy for heated email exchanges!
If this sounds appealing to you, then you have many choices for your email program. Countless PC users stick with the default program in Windows, namely, Microsoft Outlook. This is unfortunate, because Outlook is notorious for being the most vulnerable to viruses and other forms of malware that can cause the average user endless grief. It is worth the time and effort to try out far more capable and safe email clients.
One of the best free alternatives is Mozilla Thunderbird, which has all the features that the average user is looking for in an email program, and runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac. It allows you to easily manage your mail with folders, check for new messages as frequently as you want (for those bored at work!), customize the toolbars, filter out spam, spellcheck your messages, and a long list of other handy capabilities.
Web-based email has its advantages as well: You don't have to download and install another program on your computer (assuming it has a Web browser). Depending upon the quality of your ISP, you may find that their mail server is slower and less reliable than the major online email services. If you need to give someone else access to your email account, it's as simple as telling them your username and password. (But if you do so, make sure no one else gets that information; that includes not emailing it.)
You can easily access your email anywhere in the world, including Internet cafes in foreign countries. This is especially handy if you will be traveling a lot, and don't want to lug around a laptop outfitted with your email program and settings. Yet this advantage is not as great as it once was, now that more ISPs are allowing their customers to access email by logging in via the ISP's website.
If you choose to go with an online email service, you have several options, including what are probably the three most popular: Yahoo Mail, Microsoft's Hotmail, and Google's Gmail. In my experience, Yahoo Mail is solid, and does a decent job of filtering spam. Hotmail has proven less reliable, doesn't filter spam as well, and often flags legitimate messages as spam. Both services offer 250 MB of space, and have fee-based premium services that provide more space, if needed.
My favorite is Gmail, which has been as reliable as Yahoo Mail, offers a full gigabyte of space, has better searching capabilities (to be expected from Google), and is the only service I know of that groups related messages into one thread, making online conversations much easier to manage. Until Gmail offers open registration, to get a Gmail account of your own, you will need to ask someone with an account to send you an invitation (to one of your existing email accounts). Signing up is just as easy as the other services.
Regardless of whether you choose to manage your email on your computer's hard drive, or access it on the Web, you have plenty of choices for keeping in touch with the rest of the world online. Someday we may reach the point where the only envelopes we see are those at the Academy Awards.