Webmail versus Email Programs

July 5, 2005 by Diane Vigil in

How do you get your email — and where is it actually stored?

These questions may sound silly or too obvious, but computers and software can be confusing, and many people don't realize that they're reading their email online rather than in an email program. Or that they've never actually downloaded any of their email to their computers. They assume that it's been downloaded because, after all, they're reading it on their computers. Right?

Not nessarily. Here are some tests to determine whether you're using webmail or an email program:

  • Can you can surf the web in the same program that you use to access your email?
  • Must you log in to your Internet Service Provider's website (e.g., AOL or Earthlink) or to your own website's control panel to read your email?
  • Can you read your previously-accessed email on your computer when it's not connected to the Internet?

If so, then you're reading your online (through a "webmail" program). And the program on your computer that you use to access your email is not an email program, it's a web browser. Bottom line is that you are not downloading your email to your computer into an email program; you're downloading it temporarily into your web browser's temporary cache, and it will disappear either when you close it or within a (short) specified period of time. And, if you cancel your ISP account, all the emails in your webmail account will be gone.

AOL
Earthlink
gmail
Yahoo
Webmail
If you must log in to your ISP's website, or your website hosting provider's website, your email is not downloaded to your computer — at least, in a way that you can store it there indefinitely. The generic name for the function of reading email online is webmail.
Outlook
Outlook Express
Thunderbird
Netscape Email
These are email programs. You do not go anywhere to read your email — you retrieve your email to the
email program on your computer.

First, there's a difference between a browser and an email program. A browser is that program on your computer that you use to surf the web, whether it's Internet Explorer, Firefox, Netscape, AOL 9 (or whatever version number they're up to now) or some other program — these are all browsers. If you're reading your email via a browser, you almost certainly are not downloading it to your computer for storage (and reply).

An email program is a program on your computer in which you retrieve email and send replies, sort email into folders, etc. You do not "go" anywhere to log in to read your email; it comes to you. Popular email programs include Microsoft Outlook (which has a number of documented security issues), Mozilla Thunderbird and earlier versions of the Netscape Suite (which included a browser, email program and other programs).

Webmail: most ISPs (Internet Service Providers) offer online access to your email as a convenient way of dealing with it online. It's great for keeping up with email when you're away from your computer (and it's a great way for your ISP to keep you returning to its website). But it pays to know that your entire collection of what may be years' worth of email is NOT on your computer. And that, if you ever change ISPs and cancel your original account, all your past email will be deleted along with the rest of your account. Why? Because it's not on your computer — it's at your ISP's website.

(Note: technically speaking, with webmail, your email is downloaded to your computer, but not in a way that is of much help. That is, it's downloaded to a temporary folder on your computer (if you're using Windows) that eventually gets deleted. Could you find it before it's deleted? Possibly, but it can be pretty confusing, and definitely not a way you'd want to access anything.)

I've been reading my email online. Can I download it?

Almost certainly. First, you'll need an email program. Most Windows computers come with Outlook — but it must be noted that Outlook has some fairly severe security issues. And, while Netscape seems to have removed the email program from its "suite" (a suite is a bundle of programs that come together), the Netscape offshoot known as Mozilla (yes, like Godzilla; we figure it's better not to ask) offers a free, very Netscape-like email program called Thunderbird.

As to how to set up your new email program to retrieve your email, that depends on how your ISP is set up and, unfortunately, is quite outside the scope of what we do. We recommend installing an email program, then calling your ISP for instructions.

We will bet that, once you're using an email program, you may never go back to webmail. In any case, at least you'll know that all your email is on your own computer.

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