Email: Challenging Conventional Wisdom

  1. What’s better – Email software or webmail?
  2. IMAP vs. POP
  3. What is the best email provider?

This is the second of a series of blog entries having to do with productivity data.  Productivity data includes email, contacts/address books, calendar, and tasks/to-do management. It’s the “who, what, when, where and how” information that comes through our computers, smartphones, and other devices.

Accessing Your Email — Email Client Software vs. Webmail

Email providers store your messages on their servers, which are just big computers on the internet that collect and route email to and from each other. You have choices as to how to view and send your messages.

Via Webmail

The simplest path to connect to, read, and send email is through your provider’s web interface, or webmail. Examples are,,, etc. Every major email provider has such a website. Consider this your email provider’s “mother ship,” as it is the cleanest way to ensure that your account is active and receiving and sending mail as it should. The biggest pushback I hear about webmail is about the advertisements that often appear in the margins. Many people simply prefer accessing their email through a software program like Microsoft Outlook or Mac Mail, because they don’t have to enter their password each time it comes up. Regardless, accessing email through the web interface is an option on virtually every computer or device because all it needs is a web browser and an internet connection.

Via Email Software

Also referred to as an “email client,” this option includes the likes of Microsoft Outlook, Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird, Mac Mail, the iOS Mail app, the Gmail or Email app on an Android device, etc. Routing your email through software means that you are using an application, or app, to view your email. You set up the account once (ideally) in your software’s settings, allowing it to store your logon credentials so that you don’t have to enter your password each time.

Many of us got used to email software – Outlook in particular — at work. What most people don’t realize, however, is that the software adds an extra layer of complication that, when things don’t go right, can be extremely frustrating. First, there are often very specific technical directions that must be followed to get your email to flow into and out of the software correctly. Each email provider has unique server addresses and ports that have to be placed into just the right setup box. These settings, no matter how well-documented, often vary by what internet connection your computer happens to be on at the time, so you might travel with your computer and receive an error message about not being able to connect to your provider’s server. Sometimes Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) and email providers change their port or security settings without notifying consumers, and you will notice it when your email software won’t let you send or receive email.

With email software, over time, the size of the email storage folder(s) on the computer can grind the software’s performance to a halt. Microsoft Outlook is notorious for this. Switching over to a new computer becomes a major pain because then you have to move the stored email over to the new computer, which is often omitted by setup technicians unless you specifically request it.

And here’s the worst part about email software like Outlook: Many people are expecting their Calendar and Contacts to synchronize to the software along with their email across their different devices, like it does at work. Well, not all email software will synchronize with all email providers, and not all email providers even offer an integrated productivity solution that includes Contacts and Calendar (sometimes this is a premium paid service). Therefore, many people wind up keeping two or more sets of Contacts and Calendars – one for their phone, one on their computer, or reverting back to pen and paper, and it is just a hot mess. A sad, preventable mess.

I could go on and on here about the idiosyncracies of email software, and you can probably tell how I feel about it, but just in case I’m not clear: I believe that email software has its place in a corporate environment, however, most consumers and small business owners will be better off by using webmail from their traditional computers.

Bottom Line: Generally, you will spend less time and money on computer consultants if you ditch email software on your computer and use webmail instead.

Now, email software/apps do have their place with consumers; I am a supporter of using email apps on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. The apps available offer a cleaner, simpler interface, especially given the smaller screens, than using a web interface. So for using email on smaller devices, the additional trouble of setting up the account on the device is worth it, especially for those providers that offer complete productivity suites with Contacts and Calendar along with Email, as those will become available through the device’s Contacts and Calendar apps once the account is added.

POP Email vs. IMAP

Back when email became readily available to consumers, there was POP email, which stands for “Post Office Protocol.” The POP method downloaded copies of messages from the server to the computer’s email software for offline reading, and then usually deleted them from the server. This method worked well because bandwidth was slow and most of us used just one computer with email software to check email.  Many of the legacy email providers still only offer a POP connection to retrieve email. POP connections get very confusing for users when it comes to long-term storage in files or folders, as the folders created in email software do not synchronize with the server. Moving to a new computer is often a big surprise when a POP email user finds that thousands of old email messages are still in the server’s Inbox, and now downloading to their new computer – again.

IMAP and other similar email protocols were created to support a world with more bandwidth, and in which email is being accessed from multiple devices. With IMAP, all the mail – from the Inbox to any storage folders you create – is stored on the remote server, i.e., “in the cloud.” Users can access the entire mailbox – Inbox, storage folders, Sent, Trash, and all – from any of their connected devices or from webmail. Everything stays in sync, and even if you choose to use software to access it, moving to a new computer is less of a big deal than with POP. In the past, people with extraordinarily large mailboxes would shy away from IMAP because the email providers had storage size limitations; this is becoming less and less of an issue as providers move toward virtually unlimited cloud storage.

Bottom line: Given a choice between a POP connection or IMAP, IMAP is almost always the better choice.

Email Providers – Things to Consider

Popular free email providers include Gmail (Google), Yahoo,  and Microsoft. A primary advantage of free accounts (beyond the fact that they’re free) include their portability – you can easily take them with you as you move to a new city and possibly switch internet providers. Typical concerns about free accounts are (1) that their webmail sites are supported by advertisements (2) that it is often difficult if not impossible to get customer or technical support by phone, (3) consumers have little recourse if the provider experiences an outage or service degradation.

Paid email accounts include those that are bundled with your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) offerings. These include Comcast, AOL, Centurylink (previously Qwest), etc. Back in the 1990’s when email became readily available to consumers, our ISP’s were the few providers of email services to consumers. Many of us have kept these accounts over the years, at least until we move to a new area and have to switch ISP’s. Many of these legacy accounts are of the POP variety, and therefore provide less flexible connection options than many of us need with today’s technology.

Another less-common way to have a paid email account, more popular with businesses than with consumers, is to purchase service from a provider directly, often in conjunction with a domain name. The fees you pay for this service usually net you better customer service when you need it, and no advertisements.

Remember from my previous blog installment (you read that one, right?) that email is not just a stand-alone function anymore.  I highly recommend choosing a provider that offers a complete productivity suite that includes Contacts/Address Book, Calendar, Tasks, as well as Email.  These include Google’s Gmail, Apple’s iCloud, and Microsoft’s (not to be confused with Microsoft’s Outlook software).

Bottom Line: Keeping your email provider separate from your internet service provider (ISP) is preferred, as this allows you to switch ISP’s without having to switch email addresses. Most people are fine with one of the free providers, but if you have concerns about customer service, advertising, or the terms or conditions of free email accounts, you might consider a paid email provider.  Choose an email provider that includes a full productivity suite.