E-mail, short for “electronic mail” is one of most widely used forms of digital communication. It can be used from nearly any device, and unlike paper mail, it is delivered nearly instantly. E-mail is used in all strata of society, and has endless possibilities for personal and professional uses. It can be used to send messages, links, images and files, essentially everyone on the planet who uses computers will use e-mail. It powers business and connects families together across continents, and the best part of all is that it is essentially free. People use e-mail on personal computers, mobile phones, tablets, even on ‘smart' televisions!
Basics of E-mail
More than 200 billion emails are sent every single day.
An E-mail message has a Sender, and it can have multiple recipients. Using either the To line, the Carbon Copy (CC) or Blind Carbon Copy (BCC) – e-mails are delivered to the addresses listed in those fields. The e-mail has a subject line, a message body, and it can have file attachments. For more information about how messages are structured, you can read about the anatomy of an e-mail.
Origin of E-mail
The origins of e-mail date back as far as the 1960's, when the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT) invented something called the “MAILBOX” for sending text between computer terminals on a single mainframe. Then in the 1970's, the US Department of Defense began it's ARPANET program, which is the origin of the modern internet. The early ARPANET had a project in 1972 which was the first time that the @ symbol was used to denote the location of the message sender. By 1976, over 75% of ARPANET traffic was considered to be e-mail, saving the platform and paving the way for future of the internet.
The late 1980's saw the rise of the personal computer (the PC), and local-area network (LAN) ‘electronic mail' became common within corporate networks. This is the period where most of the messaging encoding protocols we use today were originally conceived and became international standards. By the time that commercially available internet became available to consumers in the early 1990's, e-mail was a well established concept and came bundled in most internet service packages. So e-mail has existed for as long as the internet has, and perhaps is very reason the internet exists in the first place!
How E-mail Moves Across the Internet
E-mail works in a fashion similar to traditional paper mail. When you put a letter in your mailbox, it does not get taken directly to the recipient. First it gets brought to your local post office, where the post office employees figure out where your mail is going to be sent. They decide which destination post office has the mail route to deliver the message to the recipient. So the trail of the message goes from your mailbox to your post office, and then to another post office, and finally to the recipient. The letter might even travel across multiple post offices before being sent on the final delivery route.
The average office worker send and receives more than 120 emails every business day.
Don't worry too much about how e-mail infrastructure works. The import concept to understand is that your e-mail inbox relies on a mail server, which is run by the website listed after the @ character. So if you have a business e-mail address, the company owns and operates a mail server to handle your messages. Or if you use the e-mail provided to you by your internet service provider, then they are the ones who own and operate your mail server. Or you could perhaps setup your own website, and pay for a web host to run a mail server for you.
If you are setting up your own e-mail, you might be asked whether you are using POP, IMAP, or Exchange. These are just different e-mail encoding methods, you will need to ask your e-mail provider which one is used, and what Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) address to use. Every e-mail server will have an SMTP incoming address and outgoing address, as well as a “port number.” When you ask your e-mail provider for this information, it will usually come with instructions on how to set it up for popular e-mail clients like Microsoft Outlook. You probably also have a help-desk or IT support phone number you can call if you get stuck.
What is Webmail and How is it Related to E-mail?
Webmail (or web-based e-mail) is still e-mail, it's just using a website for your e-mail client instead of a desktop application. There is no real technological difference on how the message gets sent. The only user-facing difference is that with webmail, an internet connection is required to read your messages, whereas with a desktop client the messages are downloaded to your computer and can be read without an internet connection. For more information, you can read all about webmail here.