You’ve Got Mail!

We have all heard of email. Most of us use it frequently.

But how many of us understand how it works?

Email – The Basics

Email Symbol

Email (or E-mail, short for Electronic Mail) is a particular way of sending messages across the internet, and has changed quite a lot since Ray Tomlinson sent his first message in 1971.

As a User, you don’t really need to know the ins and outs of SMTP, POP3, IMAP, but we will touch on how they affect your email experience.

Firstly, though, a quick explanation of an email address:

  • “admin” is the user-name. You can use your name, nickname, or anything, really, to identify you. Here, I have used “admin”, as it is collected by the Domain Administrator (me!)
  • “@”. This symbol (called “the ‘at’ symbol”, to rhyme with “hat”) denotes to the computer that the text is an email address.
  • “” – this is the Domain that my email is run from.

All email to a particular Domain is sent to the appropriate Host (the people who run the Domain), who sort it by User-Name, and store it in that user’s Mail Box.

You must have set up an Email Account with that Domain, and secured it with a Password, so that no-one else can collect mail sent to you!

e.g. Bob has the email address. Any email sent with this address is first sent to Google (who run gmail), and they will store it in the Mail Box for the User “bob”.

(Due to the immense number of people who use email, it is unlikely you will be able to register “bob” at any Domain. You must find a more Unique Identifier, which is why a lot of email addresses have seemingly random numbers on the end! “” is a different user than “”.)

When you “check your email”, you send a request (including your User Name and Password) to the Domain (including your User Name, and password), asking if there is anything in your Mail Box. The Domain will then send you anything they have stored there.

If you were to think of it as similar to Physical Mail (colloquially called “Snail Mail”, due to it’s delay in delivery compared to Email!), you would send a letter to “bob@Leicester, UK”. This will be sent to the Leicester, UK, Post Office, who store it until Bob comes along to collect it. Luckily, your computer can check with the “Post Office”(Domain) rapidly, without you ever having to leave your house!

Registering an Email Account

To use email, you must register an Account with a Domain.

For most people, there are two main ways to do this:

  1. Use the Account that your ISP (Internet Service Provider) provides for you (e.g. BT Internet, AoL, PlusNet etc)
  2. Sign up with a 3rd Party Email Provider such as Hotmail (now Outlook) or Gmail (by Google).
Hotmail Logo
The Original Hotmail!

Personally, I recommend the second option, as it avoids any problems if you choose to change ISP. If you move from, say, BT to PlusNet, BT will shut down your “<name>” email account, and you will have to open a new account elsewhere. You will then have to inform all of your Contacts (friends, utility companies, Websites that you registered with e.g. Facebook) etc that you have changed email address (similar to having to tell everyone of your new address and phone number when you move house!).

With a 3rd Party (Hotmail/Gmail/etc) account, you can keep your address, as it is not linked to your ISP!

One other way is to set up your own Domain, and register email addresses through it, but that is more advanced.

How Do I Get My Email?

Now that you have registered an Account, you will need a way of Sending and Receiving email via that account. There are two main ways to do this:

  • Outlook Express
    Outlook Express

    Webmail – Most email providers (ISP and 3rd party) provide a web page that you can visit with your Web Browser. Once you have signed in, you can access your Mail Box. (Go to the Post Office, and look through your deposit box).

  • Email Client Program – This phrase is probably new to you, but you might have heard of “Windows Live Mail”, “Outlook/Outlook Express” and “Thunderbird”. These are programs on your computer dedicated to Email. They will need to be set up with the details of your email address, password, and Domain Settings (although these are a lot more automated these days).

Email Clients tend to offer more functions than Webmail, and being on your computer, you get more control over how things work.

A Bit Of Technical Jargon

Email Clients can use two different ways to collect and send emails.

  1. A Post Box
    A Post Box

    POP3 – “Post Office Protocol, version 3”. If you collect email using this, your Email Client requests email from the Domain, which sends you it. The email is then stored on your PC, and usually deleted from the Domain Mail Box (you have picked up your letter from the Post Office. They no longer have it).

  2. IMAP – “Internet Message Access Protocol”. When you request your email, the Domain sends you a copy. Your Email Client stays in touch with the Domain, and informs them of any changes you make (deleting, making a new folder to store it in, etc). In this way, the email is kept centralised on the Domain. This is useful for when the email is checked from multiple devices (e.g. your PC and Phone both checking the same account), or when you replace your PC, as the Emails are all still on the Domain Server ready to be connected to!

IMAP is becoming a lot more prevalent these days, as internet connection speeds are faster and it is easier for the Email Client to constantly keep in touch with the Domain, updating and checking regularly.

So, now you know how email works, why not send some!

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