In the old days of the Internet, e-mail and surfing the web were two different activities. You loaded a POP-mail program (like Microsoft Outlook) to read your e-mails, and you loaded a web browser (like Explorer or Firefox) to surf the web.
And most people used e-mail accounts provided by their Internet provider. It worked pretty well, except for a couple of things.
First, every time you moved or changed Internet Service Providers, you had to change your e-mail address, which got old real fast. You'd have to send out e-mails to everyone telling them your new address and half the time they wouldn't figure it out and you'd miss dozens of e-mails after you moved or changed providers.
Second, POP mail programs, like Microsoft Outlook, are particularly vulnerable to computer viruses and worms, as they don't automatically scan for viruses and "worms" can get into your e-mail address list and send out e-mails under your name.
Web-based e-mail is one answer to both problems. Instead of logging into Microsoft Outlook, you load a website and access your e-mail there. Since the website can be accessed from any computer on the planet (or even off) there is no need to "set up" a POP mail account on your computer.
And since most of these services have built-in virus scanning, there is no need to buy or use commercial virus programs to scan your e-mails and attachments. The scanning is free, constantly updated, and requires no intervention on your part.
The three big players in this field are Microsoft (Hotmail), Yahoo, and Google (Gmail). Since the accounts are FREE, I have set up accounts with all three services, under robertplattbell @ (yahoo, hotmail, gmail).
I have run into instances where one or more service is blocked by another, in various turf wars. Also other services (AOL, when it was in business) would periodically block hotmail or yahoo. So having other accounts was worthwhile as a backup.
I set up two of the accounts go automatically forward e-mails to one account, so I need to check only one account on a daily basis to see if I have any e-mails. It is a simple system and insures that I can be reached. For my official USPTO communications, they send copies to all three e-mail addresses, which provides triple-redundency.
So which service is the best? They are all about the same, using the same or similar "engines" to drive the mail systems. If you are familiar with one, you can use the other, as the menu choices are nearly identical.
Yahoo tends to have the most annoying ads and distractions, unless you PAY $19 a year for upgraded service. Hotmail is only slightly less annoying. Yahoo also requires you to PAY if you want to forward your e-mails.
Google's gmail service seems to be the best - the new "uncluttered" look is easier to use, and has far fewer (if any) ads and garbage clogging up your screen. It also allows you to forward your e-mails without being a paying customer.
Signing up for any of these services is easy. Just log onto their websites and sign up. The service will suggest a username, but I suggest you pick your own. Your name with a string of numbers is hard to remember. It is easier to create a user name that is easy to remember. I use robertplattbell because it is my full name, and to my knowledge, no one else on the planet has the same name (a unique identifier).
Web-based e-mails allow you to do other things, too, such as store your old e-mails (a surprising number) in a large number of "folders". If you want to preserve a document or backup some files, just e-mail them to yourself, and you will have access to them anywhere in the world.
Most of these programs have calendar features, which allow you to log appointments and the like and access them from anywhere in the world - without worrying about your computer crashing. It is a minor example of what we call "Cloud Computing" and will be the wave of the future - running applications on the Internet instead of on your PC.
Now some of you may say, "Well, this post is kind of dumb - talk about stating the obvious!" But for many older people and Internet newbies, even simple things like web-based e-mail are mystifying. I have had to explain to many people how web-based e-mail works and why it works better than POP accounts.
I have been using web-based e-mail now for about a decade. It is cheap (free or a nominal fee) and works well and is accessible from anywhere. And my e-mail address stays the same, no matter who my Internet service provider is.