No matter what device we’re using, we read and create email within a browser or a separate email client.
These days, most people handle their personal mail by using a browser, but there are good reasons to use an email client.
We have no shortage of browser-based email — or webmail — services to choose from. Twenty years ago, we had few choices — mostly paid services such as AOL Mail or CompuServe, plus some early bulletin board–services such as the WELL. In the mid-’90s, new ISPs such as EarthLink offered email services along with Internet access.
Free webmail services — for example, Hotmail and RocketMail (which then became Yahoo Mail) — first appeared around 1996. Ten years ago, the now ubiquitous Gmail was still in beta.
Today, AOL and Yahoo live on — mostly on inertia. Hotmail is now Outlook.com, and nearly everyone has at least one Gmail account. There is a host of smaller players, all running on Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, and whatever other browser we might use.
For the purposes of this discussion, email clients are apps that let you manage messages outside a browser. They include such stalwarts as Outlook, Apple’s unimaginatively named Mail, Mozilla’s much-loved Thunderbird, and numerous others. The capabilities of these apps range from simple mail management to full personal-information management. Thunderbird, for example, is popular because of its focus on mail; Forté Agent combines email with Usenet news reading; and Outlook combines calendars, task lists, messages, contacts, and more.
In some cases, the distinction between webmail and email client is blurred. For example, that MS Exchange–based mail you typically manage via Outlook can also be accessed via a simple webpage. And Google offers a local-client app that lets you read your Gmail offline — as long as it’s in the Chrome browser.