Web-Based E-Mail Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)


E-mail is the story of the decade.  As a medium of communication, who might have guessed that typing written notes would become a popular substitute for phone messages and “snail mail”?

E-mail radically transformed workplaces. Even where employees have access to a sophisticated messaging system or intranet, they e-mail one another all the time. Neighbors who could easily phone one another have taken to forwarding jokes via e-mail. E-mail has created a 1990’s version of telephone tag.  It’s now an integral part of e-commerce, too.  We send inquiries to companies, and receive product catalogs, greeting cards, and confirmation forms, to say nothing of computer viruses, via e mail.  E-mail has changed the way we work, play, and bond. Now, e-mail itself is changing. One major change is that many people are now using e-mail in an entirely web-based environment.

Many now use web-based e-mail accounts such as Hotmail as secondary e-mail accounts, and some now use these as their primary form of e-mail.  If you are new to web-based e-mail, the following FAQ may help you get started.

It’s an application that functions entirely on the Internet.  It is, therefore, accessible from any Internet-connected terminal in the world.  Your web-based e-mail account physically resides on some web server somewhere, and responsibility for it lies with the company (such as Excite, Yahoo, Microsoft, or Netscape) who is providing the web-based e-mail account.

With standard (POP) e-mail, by contrast, you are using the “mail server” of your Internet Service Provider or workplace. To manage your POP-based mail accounts, users typically use a “mail client” or e-mail software such as Microsoft Outlook, Netscape Mail, or Eudora Pro.

Want to know more about e-mail?  Check out Microsoft’s All About E-mail primer or the selection of resources listed at 4email.com.

The concept of doing more of our computing (not just surfing around, but actually doing everyday tasks) in an entirely web-based environment is starting to gain popularity.

You don’t need any special software to use web-based e-mail.  You’ll be accessing your mail through a web browser such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator and managing your mail on the website of the web-based mail provider, which will have an Internet address like mail.excite.com. You’ll have to sign up with a user ID and password of your choosing. Like most registration processes on the Internet, you’ll be asked to input some personal information.

With web-based e-mail, you can access your e-mail from any Internet-connected terminal anywhere in the world.  The beauty of the web is that it’s a universal standard, and anything is accessible from anywhere.

Moreover, if you have regular (non-web-based) e-mail accounts for work, at home, school, or wherever, most of the major web-based e-mail programs allow you to check these from anywhere in the world, too.  This is called “POP mail retrieval”.

Some users are under the misconception that one needs to use a “special” service dedicated to retrieving POP mail via the Internet.  Not so.  Nowadays, this is an unremarkable feature that you can set up easily at all of the major web-based e-mail providers:  Yahoo, Excite, Hotmail, Lycos, Mail.com, AltaVista, etc.  It does require you to set it up with the correct mail server names, account names, and passwords for your regular e-mail accounts so that mail can be retrieved from them.

The terminology can be confusing.  Instead of “POP Mail,” some web-based e-mail providers call this “Check External Mail”.  Yahoo Mail calls it “Check Other Mail”.

Some major additional benefits:

  • Some people e-mail ideas, reminders, and even file attachments to their own web-based e-mail account as a way of backing up important information, or as a second backup.  It may help you to avoid toting around diskettes, or just to prevent things from being lost.  Not a bad idea.  In the future, more elegant solutions, like web-based office software, may become popular for a certain percentage of users.
  • Many people like to sign up for e-mail newsletters, enter contests, or join sites they like as “members”.  Increasingly, to register for anything interesting or free on the web, you are required to fill out a registration form and include a working e-mail address. The problem is, this compromises your privacy, and could lead to unwanted piles of e-mail, spam or just frequent mailings that you asked for, cluttering your mailbox and competing for your time.  Set up some web-based accounts that you have specifically designated in your mind as your “spam boxes” – then you can read what’s in there once a week, or whenever you want.  If the amount of junk you are receiving gets out of hand, you can abandon the free account, and open a fresh one.  Give out your main e-mail address only to those whom you trust.

These applications are now very full-featured. They don’t do everything the major e-mail programs, such as Microsoft Outlook Express, Netscape Mail, or Eudora Pro, do, but they have many useful features.

Features include:

  • Forwarding;
  • Setting the “sender address” so that return e-mail comes to, for example, your regular work account;
  • Mail filters to keep out spam or to direct mail to various folders in your account;
  • Vacation reply setting;
  • Folder management;
  • Address books;
  • Clever add-ons like voicemail and free fax receiving;
  • Integration with other web portal services like calendars;
  • Ability to synchronize with personal organizers;
  • Spell check;
  • Signatures;
  • Notification of new mail, through the use of a “browser companion”.

This is a subjective question.  Most are very good, and you shouldn’t go too far wrong whichever one you choose.  Many aren’t aware of the proliferation of web-based e-mail address providers.  There are hundreds to choose from.  We suggest, however, that most users will find it most convenient to use the web-based e-mail offered by larger companies like Microsoft, Excite, Lycos, AltaVista, etc., because they may use other web-based services provided by these companies, and because of their high quality.

For those who wish to explore beyond the major companies in order to get a unique e-mail address or one with some slightly different features, there are helpful listings available at sites such as Free Email Address Directory.

They’re free, and the usual explanation for this is that they are advertising-supported.  More than this, they have acted as a marketing tool for the companies that offer them.  Hotmail, an early entry into this field, grew so rapidly because the tagline at the bottom of every e-mail sent, “Get your free, web-based e-mail today at hotmail.com,” multiplied like the flu bug around the world, giving Hotmail great early success.  The term “viral marketing” was thus born.  In addition to advertising, addictive applications like free e-mail can help the companies which own them retain users and encourage them to use other services.  For example, Hotmail and Excite Inbox users get forwarded to the MSN or Excite start page after exiting the e-mail application. Users may also give permission to receive periodic e-mail publications or product pitches. If you don’t care to receive these, ensure that you un-check the appropriate check boxes when signing up for the first time. Some people want to receive mailings on topics which interest them.

Some of the web-based e-mail programs offer free upgrades for additional services or larger mailbox capacity.  Generally speaking, users should ignore these offers.  They don’t offer good value to consumers.  Sign up for multiple accounts, or look for a service which offers a larger capacity for free.

No. You’ll be unable to use standard POP mail retrieval to access AOL mail. Various other e-mail accounts will be inaccessible through this method, as well – generally, anything that resides behind a firewall. (You also cannot, generally speaking, retrieve other web-based e-mail from your web-based accounts using POP mail retrieval.) AOL users can, however, access their mail from the web. They just have to use a special AOL web-based utility designed for this purpose: AOL Mail (in some countries this is called AOL Netmail).

The major portal companies are, by and large, eager to help you, though some offer more responsive customer service than others.  The best web-based e-mail should come with extensive help files.  These things are changing constantly, but we’ve noticed that AltaVista Mail’s help file is quite comprehensive.

Admittedly, there are screwups that are simply the fault of the provider.  Excite’s authentication system has been unreliable, and has caused service outages.  A company called Critical Path, which provides the computing infrastructure which underlies many free web-based e-mail inboxes, has had growing pains, causing headaches for customers who have had difficulty getting access to their e mail addresses at major destination portals like Canada.com.  In practice, most users experience few problems, but web congestion and complex systems add up to periodic glitches for even the best providers.

Internet security concerns shouldn’t be exaggerated, but neither should they be underestimated.  You shouldn’t expect anything you send or receive by any kind of e-mail transmission as totally secure, but that also goes for your regular POP-based e-mail account.  Security breaches at Hotmail were well-publicized, perhaps due to Microsoft’s size and status as a target for criticism. But in truth, most of these systems have vulnerabilities. It likely depends on where a hacker will decide to make the most concerted efforts.

Some people get new addresses and passwords every few months, and delete everything often, just to be sure no one is peeking.

For power users, there are advanced forms of encryption, anonymization, and privacy protection aimed at users of e-mail or users of the Internet generally.  Some of these include: HushmailPrivacyX, and Anonymizer. The state-of-the-art service for anonymity and privacy protection is Freedom from Zero Knowledge Systems.  Only a security expert can truly evaluate these products, but it’s generally acknowledged that Zero Knowledge is on the cutting edge.

You may be somewhat anonymous, especially if you use a pseudonym for your account, but you can’t count on total anonymity unless you take extraordinary steps.  Your unique IP (Internet Protocol) address is logged by the sites you visit.  An IP address is a unique Internet address.  Your account through your Internet Service Provider acts like a footprint telling every site you visit where you came from, and that includes the Yahoo or Hotmail site you use to sign up for, and send, “anonymous” e-mail. Court orders can be used to attempt to trace users’ activities in certain cases.  In a few cases, logged Internet sessions have helped to convict individuals on criminal charges of libel, securities fraud, etc., even though these users were under the impression that they were posting anonymously to Internet discussion boards.

You can have as many as you want.  If your goal is to simplify your life, however, consider restricting yourself to one or two.

You can get creative with variations, but even here, the major providers, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, etc., have had so many millions of signups, that everything good seems to be gone.

This is a doubly important issue for those who plan to use a major web portal like Yahoo, Altavista, MSN, or Excite for multiple services or features. In this case, you’ll be using the same user ID and password for all of these features. That’s why you need to choose a user ID and password you can live with.  This is also why, in our view, it makes sense to choose one portal you like, and perform a variety of tasks, and read your favorite content, in that environment.  After all, it takes a long time to set up customized news display, e-mail, stock portfolios, instant messaging, and all the various features the major portals have to offer.  You don’t want to go through the whole process more than you need to, and it’s unlikely that e-mail is the only web-based feature you’ll want to use.

For people who don’t want an ugly name, you may want to try one of the less-well-travelled services. Major provider Mail.com has a variety of topical e-mail domain names like @consultant.com that may appeal to people wanting something with personality.  Or try using one from a country that doesn’t have heavy Internet use. 4anything.com offers free e-mail with names related to their hundreds of sites (all beginning with the number 4).  We’ve just set up an address called traffick@4email.com, just for the heck of it.  Drop us a line there if you want to talk more about e-mail.  If you wanted, you could set up your own account with a name like fatfingers@4RockClimbing.com, or indianatownandmydad@4gary.com. Get creative.

Maybe. Think of it as a useful tool, but consider your audience when sending e-mail or giving out your address. You don’t necessarily want to have a Hotmail account on your business card or resume.

On the other hand, there is less to worry about now that these services have become so well known. Most recipients won’t be too taken aback unless you work in a conservative profession.

Some services offer a “tagline blocker” and other premium services intended to give your web-based mail a more professional look. Think twice before shelling out for such services.

You can try wandering into a public library and hoping they allow free use of the terminals. In North America, there are now several advertising-supported services which offer completely free 56K dialup Internet access. The leaders are Netzero and AltaVista Free, and now, the newly-announced My Free ISP from Excite.

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