Free your email

Email, it's been around a long time, and it looks like it'll around for a long time to come. I believe my first email address was through a local computer society called the PC Users Group - derek at I kept that address for many years, and even continued to pay the membership fees after I no longer used their services just to keep that address. Back then, the internet was accessed via a dial-up modem like this one.

It used the phone line to make a regular phone call to effectively "dial up" your internet service provider who had a bank of these modems ready to receive your call and connect you. This was inconvenient because once you were online, the phone line was busy (which got annoying for other family members who wanted to use it!), so it was best to get on for a short period of time, do what you needed to do, and get off. And ideally you didn't need to get back on again otherwise you'd be up for the cost of another phone call. The last thing you'd want back then was to have your email only accessible when online.

To avoid staying online too long and putting up with the painfully slow process of downloading anything, the best way to get email was by using a program on your computer designed to retrieve and store emails for offline browsing - an email client. Outlook Express was built into Windows XP and worked well.

With Outlook Express setup, you could connect to the internet for just as long as it took to send any pending emails you had composed while offline, and receive any new emails that had arrived while offline.

Well things have changed a lot since the days of Outlook Express and dial-up internet. For one, the vast majority of people now use broadband connections to the internet which are always on, and extremely fast (well faster than before at least!). What's more, people no longer use a single device. There are smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops, and I'm sure very soon even your car will have it's own internet. So having emails being downloaded to a single device for use on only that device is no longer ideal.

Before we get too much further in this discussion, there are two terms you need to be aware of for this to really make sense. They relate to the way email is transferred from the server it resides on to your device. They are POP (Post Office Protocol) and IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol).

POP was the protocol used to transfer emails to your computer when you used Windows XP and ran Outlook Express as your mail client. Generally with POP, mail was copied from the server to your local mail client, and upon successfully copying all new messages, the copied messages were deleted off the server. Deleting them off the server was, and often to this day still is, an important step because your mail provider may only provide a very limited amount of space for you to save your emails - if you use up all that space, you won't get any new emails.

Okay I can already hear you saying, but I use POP and can get emails on my computer and phone no problems, and I haven't run out of space! Yep true, that's because you can setup POP to not delete emails from the server for a specified time period (say 2 weeks). That way both your computer and phone get a chance to retrieve your emails before they're deleted. Your mail client keeps track of which emails have been downloaded so they don't get downloaded again.

So then what's the issue? The issue is in the way the process works. You remember I said emails are "copied" off the server? That's a problem. You get this new store of emails on the device which has no connection to the original emails on the server, so if anything changes on the device, there is no "syncronisation" of emails between the device and the server. It's a one-way process. Say you have a bunch of folders you've created on your device. You won't see those folders on any other device unless you manually create them there also. And if you've meticulously moved emails into all those folders, that work is not sent back to the server, so no other device knows about it.

There's another issue. What happens if (when?!) your device dies. Well, you better hope you have a backup of those emails, because they're no longer on the server so you won't be able to get them back by downloading them again, they're gone. What's worse, standard backup software may not backup the location where your emails are actually stored.

Enter IMAP. The big difference between POP and IMAP is the way emails are transferred. While POP copies emails, IMAP syncronises them. IMAP is a two-way process that keeps emails in the client in sync with emails on the server. Anything you do on the client is reflected on the server once the syncronisation process completes, and vice versa. This is a big improvement over POP because it now means all those folders you've created are safely stored on the server. Furthermore, all your emails are backed up because they are never deleted from the server until you delete them in the client. Finally, IMAP makes checking emails from multiple devices a breeze. You simply configure each device to check email, and because the server is always kept up-to-date, all devices have the same set of emails and folders.

Okay so you think IMAP is the way to go? Well yes, it's definitely better than POP, but there's another option which may be better still. What if we could remove this whole syncronisation or copying process entirely and just get to the server directly? That would save all this mucking around and extra complexity right? Well that's exactly what happens when you use webmail. When you login, you're getting access to the server where your email resides, and you can manipulate it right there. Many years ago, this was a really bad option. The internet was slow, the webmail experience was difficult and you got much less functionality than the email client. But today, that has changed drastically. Webmail like GMail and can provide just as much if not more functionality than many email clients, and with high speed always on broadband internet connections, needing to be online to check email is a non-issue. And if you use an email address from these webmail providers, adding your email to other devices is a snap as all modern devices are pre-configured to allow easy setup of these well known services.

So after reading all that, what's the next step? Here's the problem, everyone knows your current email address so it'll be a massive pain in the butt to change it right? Wrong. You can get a new webmail account and set it up to retrieve all the email from your old address automatically. So when you get an email, it'll appear in your new inbox where you can respond from your new address. While you continue to pay your internet service provider, you'll continue to get access to that old address, so you'll have plenty of time to let everyone know your new address.

If you're ready to take the plunge, take a look at this YouTube video I created some years ago now explaining the process. And if you get stuck, let me know - I'd be happy to help.

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