Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Flavors of Email

June 2006

By Mike Gould

Many are the paths to enlightenment. If you find your email enlightening, you are in luck because this time around we are exploring all the different ways you can go to your mailbox. Along the way we will learn some exciting new (to you, maybe) acronyms with which you can amaze your friends and colleagues.

This article came about when I discovered that a significant portion of you out there are checking your email via a web browser. Folks, there is a faster way. But first, as always, a little refresher course in emailology.

How It All Works
When someone sends you an email, it ends up in your mailbox at the post office. The post office is a Big Honking Server (BHS - a technical term) and the mailbox is your account on that server. The BHS is a specially-configured computer that tells the Internet that it is available to receive mail destined for its clients who have accounts there. Bizperson@honker.com is an address that receives email for Bizperson at the domain of honker.com. Honker.com can contain multiple accounts within it. In other words, the BHS has a collection of mailboxes for the various workers at honker.com. You usually get 5 or more email addresses when you sign up with an ISP, so that all the workers in your small business are covered. If you need more, you can add them for what is usually a small additional fee.

One thing that is important to understand is that the BHS that receives your mail is not the same BHS that sends your mail. The out-going email server is called the SMTP server, which stands for Simple Mail Transport Protocol. This server is usually picky about who it will serve in sending email; there is usually some authentication scheme in place, which we will discuss further below.

Client vs. the Browser (Web-based)
In order to check your email, you have 2 main routes: client software or your web browser. Client software packages, such as Outlook Express (which comes free with Windows), Mail (which comes free with Macs) and Thunderbird (from the folks who brought you Firefox) all talk to your mailbox at your account directly. Web browsers (Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, et al) talk to your mailbox indirectly, and there's the rub. To check your mail with web browser, you first have to go to your ISP's web site, which is running all the various web protocols, and from there the web server has to talk to the mail server, which is running the various email protocols. This adds a layer of ones and zeroes back and forth, with the net result (ho ho) of slowness for the whole process.

In other words, when you use client software, you are talking to your mailbox; when you use the web, you are talking to a web server which is talking to your mailbox. Now this isn't as big a deal as it used to be, because web and email servers have gotten quite adept at chatting with each other - but client software is still faster.

POP vs. IMAP
Here come some of those acronyms I promised you. These are involved in client setups: when you use client software to check and maintain your email, you have 2 main choices in how you interact with your email server. Using the first, POP (which stands for Post Office Protocol), when you check your mailbox for new mail, it downloads all the new email to your computer, where you can store it, sort it into various folders, and read it later when you are off-line. With IMAP (Internet Mail Access Protocol), when you check your email you are only viewing a directory of your mailbox, downloading as you need to. If you are off-line, you can't read your current or previous email. All your various mailboxes that you create to sort and store email are on the server, not on your computer (what we call "Local"). Browser-based email is all IMAP, but with POP you get a choice.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both flavors, and to using client software vs. a browser.

Browsers
Pluses: Relatively simple to use, available from any computer when traveling (Internet cafes, friend's computers, etc.), complete access to all your folders as long as you are connected to the Internet. Attachments stay on the server unless you specifically download them - an advantage in avoiding some spam and most viruses. Minuses: Relatively slow connection-wise, rigid interface (you usually can't configure things to your specifications), usually a slower experience as you have to constantly be scrolling up and down and there are limits to the number of messages you can see per page, so you are always going from page to page as you try to find your messages amongst the spam. And unless you jump through some hoops, you can't save your messages for reading later while disconnected.

Clients
Pluses: Direct connection to the email server, hence faster connectivity. More flexibility in arranging your interface - mailboxes, fonts, etc. Since all your mail is downloaded and saved when you connect, you can read it later at your leisure while disconnected (assuming you choose POP; with IMAP you need to be connected to get to your email). Minuses: Can be more complicated to learn, and a bit more complicated to set up - you have to know the address of your incoming email server (usually mail.yourISP.com) and your outgoing SMTP server (usually smtp.yourISP.com).

Mix and Match
But there is no reason why you can't use all the above. You can use a client at your office for your usual day-to-day email, choosing POP or IMAP depending on what best fits your workflow. This is the fastest way to do email, and you usually have an IT person on hand to set you up and fine-tune things. Then, when you travel, you can check your email from anywhere via the web - all you need to know is the URL of your ISP. This is what I do; I use Eudora for POP at home, and Safari for web mail when on the road. Your mileage may vary.

Happy Birthday to Me
For those of you keeping score, this is my 100th article in this series. A milestone, and a millstone, as I now have a centenarian rep to maintain as I figure out how to keep all this fresh and new and zesty for the next 100 pieces. Feedback, praise, heckling, and suggestions for future articles can be sent to the email address below.

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of Factotem.com, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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