Web-based email had its genesis at the same time the Web exploded into popular consciousness, in the mid-1990s. Compared to using an email program that resides on your own computer, called an email client, with Web-based email or Webmail you use your Web browser to connect to a server of a Webmail provider and exchange messages that way.
The main advantage is convenience. With Webmail, you can send and receive email from any computer, smartphone, or tablet wherever you are. The main disadvantages, which are less pronounced than they used to be, are slower speed and fewer features. Some Webmail providers offer the option of also exchanging email using an email client.
The most popular Webmail services are free and ad-supported. Some offer extra services for a fee, such as email client access or dispensing with ads. With almost all Webmail services, virus scanning is included.
The three most widely known Web email services today are Gmail from Google (www.google.com), Yahoo Mail ( www.yahoo.com), and Windows Live Hotmail from Microsoft (www.mail.live.com), with AOL Mail (www.mail.aim.com) being another major player. Other lesser known services have created a splash lately and depending on your needs may also be worth a look.
Many Internet service providers (ISPs) also offer Webmail as an option for their subscribers. This can be a convenience if you typically use your ISP's email servers in conjunction with an email client but want to access your email through the Web on the road.
Two recent surveys shed interesting light on specific Webmail services and the types of people using them.
Among the big three, Gmail not surprisingly came up way ahead. It was ranked as the top service by 21.73% of respondents. Yahoo Mail was a distant second at 6.95%, and Windows Live Hotmail received 4.83% of the votes.
The big news though was that two lesser known services topped all of the big three services this year. Zoho Mail (www.mail.zoho.com) was ranked the best Web mail service, garnering 34.15% of the votes, and GMX Mail (www.gmx.com) was second with 32.34%. Last year in About.com's survey Zoho Mail was only in fifth place with 6.83% of the votes and Gmail was way ahead of the pack with 45.50%.
Unlike many other Webmail services, Zoho Mail is targeted primarily toward business users, though it does provide free access for personal use.
The polling company Pole Position (www.pollposition.com) recently published the results of its most recent survey of Webmail services, though it mentioned by name only Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and AOL Mail.
Gmail was ranked the best by 22.8% of respondents, Yahoo Mail by 20.2%, and AOL Mail by 12.1%. The demographic breakdowns are interesting as well.
Republicans choose the user friendly, feature-poor, and relatively slow AOL Mail as the best Webmail service. Democrats ranked it by far as the worst. Democrats and independents both chose Gmail as the top service.
Young people, ages 18 to 29, also preferred AOL Mail, perhaps because of the popularity of its sister program, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), among young people. People ages 30 to 44 preferred Gmail. Those 45 to 64 picked Yahoo Mail, perhaps because it has been around the longest of the three and they're most familiar with it.
About.com also ranked email clients based on reader votes. On the Windows side, surprisingly, the top program by far was Opera (www.opera.com), receiving 76.45% of the votes. Mozilla Thunderbird (www.mozilla.org/thunderbird) was second at 13.37%, and Microsoft Outlook (www.office.microsoft.com/outlook) was third at 5.47%.
Opera is a free program that combines a Web browser with email and other Internet tools, including a client for downloading files via BitTorrent, a robust and popular file-sharing system that has been implicated in the illegal transfer of copyrighted materials. Opera is especially popular in Eastern Europe.
On the Mac side, the email program built into Mac OS X, Mac OS X Mail, was ranked the best by About.com readers, with 53.28 percent of the votes. Mozilla Thunderbird (www.mozilla.org/thunderbird/all.html) was second with 22.63% and Microsoft Outlook for Mac (www.microsoft.com/mac/outlook) was third at 11.68%.
Despite the increasing popularity of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, email remains an extremely widespread way of communicating. Various estimates have around 30 billion legitimate (non-spam, non-phishing, non-virus) emails sent in the world each day.
Reid Goldsborough is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.