Why are we using email client applications over Web-based email

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Previous use of desktop email clients until Web-based email matured

Ever since the start of the Internet, we mainly used desktop email clients which were often part of a larger electronic-mail infrastructure like CompuServe or AOL or a corporate messaging platform. Some of us who used terminal-based email like email applications running on corporate or university mainframes; or through viewdata services like MiniTel may have had the opportunity to send Internet-based email by adding a special Internet-mail qualifier to the address.

These desktop email clients had become more sophisticated by inheriting personal organisation or word-processing abilities. It also included HTML-based email as well as easy-to-manage attachments.

The Web-based email services started to appear in 1997 with the likes of Hotmail and allowed people who use Internet cafes to send and receive mail from any computer without configuring email clients. These email services were considered as an auxiliary or temporary email service for people with their own computers as well as primary email services for nomadic people.

Mature Web-based email services

Over the years, GMail, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail improved their Web-based email services that they became a similar standard to a desktop-client experience and some computer users had moved towards these services rather than setting up a POP3 inbox and a desktop email client. Similarly, most Internet service providers and companies are also running Web-based email front-ends for their email servers.

It has also been intensified because of Internet service providers locking down their SMTP outbound-mail services in order to make it harder to send spam and this has put various limitations on travellers and others who move between locations with their own laptop computers. It also became easier for multiple-computer users to see what was read on each terminal synchronously – if it was read on one PC, it was treated as read on the other PC. This was more so as the home network became more popular as people signed up to affordable always-on broadband Internet.

Return of client-based email

We are now seeing the return of client-based email due to varying factors.

One is that Web-based email services are increasingly becoming oversubscribed and their front-end servers are taking a longer time to respond to user-generated activity. It has led to the service providers scrambling to increase bandwidth and server power to service an increased user base.

Similarly, there is an increasing number of free desktop email clients that come with either the operating system or available for download, whether as part of a Web services platform or a sidekick application to one of the many Web browsers. These clients are becoming as good as either one of the current Web-based services or as good as a premium desktop email client of a generation or two ago. They include functionality like calendar / taskpad management and RSS feed-reading support which provides for a highly-valuable highly-affordable personal-information-management solution.

The same email clients are being integrated in to handlheld devices like smartphones which have Wi-Fi or wireless-broadband support. Similarly, the size and cost of laptop computers has reduced due to the arrival of netbooks and ultraportable notebooks that have integrated Wi-Fi and, perhaps, wireless broadband. These lead to the ability to check on your email anywhere you go rather than operating a large computer for this purpose.

In the same context, Web-based email services now offers SMTP/POP3 or IMAP support either as a free service or as an add-on for a small extra cost. ISPs are also setting up secure portable access mechanisms to their SMTP servers, such that users have to log in to these servers with their mailbox credentials before they can send mail through them. This has now made client-based email become increasing relevant for more users.

Why use a desktop email client

The desktop email client provides for use of standard email application protocols and allows the messages to be held locally on the computer’s hard disk.

The speed and performance of the desktop email client is consistent to that of the local computer device rather than combination of Internet bandwidth and a busy Web-based email server.

Similarly. the experience provided by these programs is consistent to that provided by the local computer device and you can even use keyboard shortcuts that are provided by the local computer device for expediting most tasks.

People who use portable computing devices like smartphones or laptops “on the road” can benefit from creating emails offline then sending them out when they choose to go online to update the mailbox. This is also of similar benefit for rural users who are stuck with dial-up Internet and who should be getting broadband Internet service.

Why use a browser-based email experience

A browser-based email experience would suit users who have to use shared computers such as Internet cafes, public libraries or friends’ houses. It can also be used as an adjunct to client-based email setups for quick creation of supplementary email accounts.

What needs to happen further

A major flaw that currently exists with most client-based personal email setups is that there isn’t support for synchronous multi-terminal access. That is if you read an email on one computer or other device, it is marked as read when you see your emails on other devices.

This could be achieved by allowing people who subscribe to personal email services like ISP-provided email to use IMAP4 or “hosted Exchange” mail protocols as alternatives to the POP3/SMTP protocols. These protocols are being supported by most email clients that are currently in service. These protocols allow for “header-only” view for skimming email lists on low-memory devices as well as synchronous multi-terminal access.

They, especially the IMAP4 protocol, could be provided for free by most personal / residential ISPs and there could be an “auto-negotiate” routine which prefers the best option available for the user as part of email client setup.

Conclusion

Now that client-based email use is returning to common use, ISPs and third-party email providers should consider operating a speedy AJAX-driven Web-based interface with “best-case” rendering as well as a client-based interface that works with secure implementations of the POP3 /SMTP, IMAP4 and “hosted-Exchange” protocols. 

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