Working with Email, Part 2: Email Clients

In the previous post we looked at email plumbing—what goes on when messages are sent from one machine to another. In this post, we are going to look at how we as users access our messages.

The way we access messages depends on how our mail server is configured:

  • Whether it allows POP and IMAP access, or
  • Whether it is a webmail or not.

Web Mail

Most of us were introduced to email through a web browser. A browser by default is a program that is optimised for accessing web pages.

This means that the way one accesses a web mail service is nothing else other than just an access to a web page that is protected by a username and password.

No special keys are necessary to start reading your messages, just those movement keys you are used to when reading any other page.

So in essence, a web mail service is a front-end provided by a mail service provider such as Gmail or Outlook for you to start sending and viewing your received messages.

Most of these web services are free, so you do not need to do anything other than creating an account, log in and start sending messages.

Advantages of Web Mail

  • No need to install another program on your computer to start sending and receiving your messages. Everything is done in the browser.
  • Access your email everywhere where internet is available, provided that you know your username and password to log in.
  • No need to know the gory details of how your email is setup: In other words, you don’t have to worry about port numbers for making your messages get into your filesystem as with desktop clients.

Disadvantages of Web Mail Service

  • Messages are not part of your filesystem: you cannot have your email indexed along with your other documents.
  • You need internet access to read your messages, and send them. This means that at any time, you have to be online to have access to your messages.
  • Difficult to see all your messages on one screen: you may need to page across a number of screens to get all your email.

Desktop clients

Unlike web mail services, desktop clients are those programs that are dedicated to sending and receiving email. By “desktop”, this includes mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

A desktop email client is just like any other program on your computer: it is dedicated to doing just one thing namely to get your email and send them.

So in the same way you think of a word processor like Microsoft Word, a music player like Windows Media Player, this is how an email client functions: it is part of your programs. So you do not need a browser to read your email. You read them in the client.

To start using a desktop client, you need to know a few things, though. These include:

  • Your username and password;
  • How to operate your email client itself;
  • In some cases, your host address and appropriate port numbers for outgoing and incoming messages.

While this seems as a tall order, you will be pleased that most email clients nowadays such as Mozilla Thunderbird and Microsoft Outlook will try to make your life easier by automatically configuring some of these details when you have an email address such as a GMail, Outlook or Yahoo Mail.

Advantages of Desktop Clients

  • Email is retrieved from the mail server, either through POP or IMAP, to your computer. This makes it possible to access all your emails while offline.
  • In the same way, you can read your messages without internet connection, and you can also write your messages while offline and it will be queued.
  • Once you have your internet connection restored, you can send your messages and get fresh mail.
  • Unlike webmail where in most cases you are tied to receiving your mail to one email address, with a desktop client, you can setup as many email addresses as you like. 1
  • You see your messages as ordinary documents: this means you can not only index, but also export and import as any other document to some compatible formats such as PDF or plain text.


  • Setting up a desktop email client requires some technical know-how. First off, you may need to know how to operate your email client as compared to a web browser which you use to access a webmail.
  • Email takes up space on your hard drive. Depending with the amount of messages you may have, it means you should have enough space to hold it. Whereas with a webmail, everything is stored in the cloud, and space is not your concern.
  • If you are using POP, if your computer crashes, your messages are gone. Although some services such as Yandex will always keep your messages even with POP setup, POP will always be dangerous as mail retrieved from your server is deleted.


Regardless of which way you use to access your email, you must be confident with it. Particularly, you have to know how to secure your digital communication. This means logging out of your session if using a webmail service, or protecting your email client.

In the next post, we will be looking at email encryption, a method of securing the messages you write to others. Thank you for reading this post!

  1. Of course, almost every webmail service nowadays has an option to receive your email from another mail server. In effect, this other webmail wants to act as a mail client and eases your way of doing business by getting your email to one address. However, such an experience is not the same as a desktop client as this experience relies on some other mail server acting as a mail client. ↩︎

Ishe Chinyoka
Ishe Chinyoka
Access Technology Instructor

My research interests include operating systems, access technology, programming, and science fiction.