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What is Email?

By Ken Black
Updated May 16, 2024
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Email, sometimes written as e-mail, is simply the shortened form of “electronic mail,” a system for receiving, sending, and storing electronic messages. It has gained nearly universal popularity around the world with the spread of the Internet. In many cases, email has become the preferred method for both personal and business communication.

How It Is Used

Messages sent by electronic mail normally reach a recipient’s account within seconds. They frequently include more than just text; images and numerous types of formatted documents are now easily included as attached files. Moreover, it is no longer necessary to be sitting in front of a PC to send or receive an email. A variety of mobile devices, such as tablet computers and smart phones, make it possible manage correspondence on the go.


Users receive and send messages using standardized protocols that make it possible for emails to travel seamlessly between computers running different types of software, and across different kinds of servers on various networks. Simple message transfer protocol (SMTP) enables the actual sending and receiving of messages. Other protocols, including Post Office Protocol (POP) and Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP), allow users to retrieve and store messages over time.

Client Software

In the beginning, a program, called “client software,” was necessary to handling the mail. There are many different email applications available, some of which cost money to use while others are free; some Internet providers even include it with the service. Client software is still used today, but there is another more flexible method that has become more popular in recent times.


In addition to accessing electronic mail through client software, webmail is another popular option. Most service providers offer this as an additional benefit, where the user can access his or her mailbox over the Internet, from any computer or other web-connected device. Some email services are specifically designed for using the World Wide Web as their primary interface. These sites, called "portals," have become very popular, as they usually offer individuals a chance to open an email account at no charge, along with access to a search engine, news, calendar, and many other resources from a single spot.


Though there is some degree of uncertainty as to when email was invented, the father of the modern version is generally regarded to be an American, Ray Tomlinson. Before Tomlinson, users could send messages to each other, but only when they were connected to the same computer. Even once computers were networked, messages could not be targeted to a particular individual. Tomlinson devised a way to address mail to certain users, and thus was credited for one of the most important communication inventions in the 20th century.

Tomlinson's idea was to identify the name of the user and the computer at which he or she was located. As a result, the basic formula for addressing an email was username@usercomputer. This standard has not changed much over the years, other than the user computer is now commonly replaced by the name of a service provider.

Privacy Concerns

From a legal standpoint, email is generally treated as a private form of communication, much the same as a phone call, or even a hand written letter; the specifics will vary from one country to another, but it is typically illegal to access, read, or publish another person’s messages without permission. It is important to understand, however, that it is relatively easy for hackers to intercept electronic mail. Moreover, many companies require that their employees sign an agreement granting the employer permission to monitor all messages sent from, or received at corporate email addresses.

Another privacy concern is that every electronic message becomes a more or less permanent record of the communication. Selecting a message for deletion will remove it from the visible queue on the user’s account, but a person should never assume that the message is truly gone; deleted emails are notoriously easy to resurrect. Even if the sender uses specialized software to thoroughly obliterate all traces of the message from his or her computer, copies of the email will likely still exist on the receiver’s end, as well as on many of the servers across which it traveled. Consequently, it is unwise to send sensitive information by this method without carefully considering the possibility that an outside party could get hold of it. Since emails are automatically time and date stamped, these records are often subpoenaed by courts in order to establish a time line for a particular chain of events.


The influence of email cannot be overstated. The United States Postal Service, for example, notes that it handles 485 million pieces of mail per day. By comparison, 39.6 billion emails are sent every day in the United States. In other words, electronic mail providers handle more than 81 times the volume of the largest postal system in the world. It is perhaps just as revealing to consider the degree to which electronic mail has affected the use of traditional “snail mail,” as it is often referred to today. The U.S. Postal service, along with many other world postal services have experienced dramatic declines in volume and revenue, that began in the later half of the 1990s, and which have continued steadily ever since; this is partly because so much personal and business correspondence is now being delivered by email.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1002603 — On Jan 04, 2020

Email is good but a bit archaic.

By eidris11 — On Feb 10, 2019


By safame20 — On Oct 28, 2013

I do not agree that webmail is the best solution. I think if you have used outmail you will change your mind. Here are the reasons: It can handle multiple accounts instead of opening webmail and login again and again. You can send emails from any account. It's very fast and efficient and any account can be configured with it.

By mendocino — On Jun 12, 2010

What a great gift to humanity. Family, friends and colleagues can be in touch frequently, quickly and inexpensively.

By pixiedust — On Sep 08, 2009

Webmail is *way* better than email that you can only access via the client's software. Webmail allows you the freedom to access it from anywhere, and it isn't beholden to the client's software crashes. Webmail (like gmail, yahoo mail, or hotmail) seems to always be accessible.

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