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How Email Works - an Explanation for the Business Professional

Within this document we will use only enough techno-speak to identify the important pieces so the non-techie can understand the whole thing. 

It’s a wonder how an email message gets crafted on a computer and then, almost mysteriously, goes into the cloud of computers and networks and arrives to the right person.  It works because the entire computer communications process is well defined.

Email can be written either on a desktop/laptop/mobile device using an email program or on a remote computer using a web browser into a webmail system.  Examples of desktop programs are Outlook, Thunderbird, MacOS Mail and IncrediMail.  Additional examples for Android devices are Aqua Mail (which we use), Blue Mail and others.  Browser based webmail programs are available through Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, etc.  Web Solutions uses Plesk Premium Email.

What is SMTP

Once an email is written and completed it is sent, along with any attachments with one click <Send> to a computer on the network.  The email is received by the computer and the SMTP (Send Mail Transport Protocol) process begins to transmit the email across the Internet into the Internet Inbox of the recipient(s).  What the recipient does to read their inbox depends again on whether they are using a desktop/laptop/mobile device program or using webmail. If they are using the former they will use either POP3 or IMAP to access the email.

What is POP3?

POP email is the most basic form of business email. It is easy to set up, use and very affordable for the email server host. POP3 is the name of the process for reading email. Unlike webmail email (i.e Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail) POP email downloads the email and stores them on your hard drive — as opposed to keeping them on the server. POP email is a great program for the individual who spends most of their quality time on one computer/mobile platform.  The challenge is for the person who wants to read their email from various places.  

POP or IMAP with SMTP Receive Read and Send

POP3 Saving email and Removing from the Remote Server

One can read email on multiple devices; the desktop computer, tablet or phone.  When this happens, once an email is removed from the device it is also removed from the remote server storage location.  Therefore, it is very important to use one of those email reading devices (like the desktop or laptop) to permanently store the downloaded email.  

However, there is a feature in the POP3 email reader for leaving the email on the server for as many as 30 days.  This will allow the other devices to also read the email in parallel.  

Outlook POP3 Setting - Leave a copy of messages on the server and remove after days

An alternative to POP3 is IMAP.  The desktop, laptop or mobile device settings simply need to change. 

What is IMAP

In computing, the IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) is an Internet standard protocol used by email clients to retrieve email messages from the mail server. Where POP removes the email from the server (unless set otherwise as above) IMAP email remains on the server.  

IMAP is generally the preferred means to manage email.  This is so, since the email is always accessible from any device that is connected.  That means a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet and smartphone can all access and manage the same email.  IMAP however requires the email server place a limit on how much email and attachments can be stored.  A storage capacity of 4GBytes is good.