A web application which provides message management, composition, and reception functions may act as an web email client, and a piece of computer hardware or software whose primary or most visible role is to work as an email client may also use the term.
Like most client programs, an email client is only active when a user runs it. The common arrangement is for an email user (the client) to make an arrangement with a remote Mail Transfer Agent (MTA) server for the receipt and storage of the client’s emails. The MTA, using a suitable mail delivery agent (MDA), adds email messages to a client’s storage as they arrive. The remote mail storage is referred to as the user’s mailbox. The default setting on many Unix systems is for the mail server to store formatted messages in mbox, within the user’s home directory. Of course, users of the system can log-in and run a mail client on the same computer that hosts their mailboxes; in which case, the server is not actually remote, other than in a generic sense.
Emails are stored in the user’s mailbox on the remote server until the user’s email client requests them to be downloaded to the user’s computer, or can otherwise access the user’s mailbox on the possibly remote server. The email client can be set up to connect to multiple mailboxes at the same time and to request the download of emails either automatically, such as at pre-set intervals, or the request can be manually initiated by the user.
A user’s mailbox can be accessed in two dedicated ways. The Post Office Protocol (POP) allows the user to download messages one at a time and only deletes them from the server after they have been successfully saved on local storage. It is possible to leave messages on the server to permit another client to access them. However, there is no provision for flagging a specific message as seen, answered, or forwarded, thus POP is not convenient for users who access the same mail from different machines.
Alternatively, the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) allows users to keep messages on the server, flagging them as appropriate. IMAP provides folders and sub-folders, which can be shared among different users with possibly different access rights. Typically, the Sent, Drafts, and Trash folders are created by default. IMAP features an idle extension for real-time updates, providing faster notification than polling, where long-lasting connections are feasible. See also the remote messages section below.
In addition, the mailbox storage can be accessed directly by programs running on the server or via shared disks. Direct access can be more efficient but is less portable as it depends on the mailbox format; it is used by some email clients, including some webmail applications.
In addition to email clients running on a desktop computer, there are those hosted remotely, either as part of a remote UNIX installation accessible by telnet (i.e. a shell account), or hosted on the Web. Both of these approaches have several advantages: they share an ability to send and receive email away from the user’s normal base using a web browser or telnet client, thus eliminating the need to install a dedicated email client on the user’s device.
Some websites are dedicated to providing email services, and many Internet service providers provide webmail services as part of their Internet service package. The main limitations of webmail are that user interactions are subject to the website’s operating system and the general inability to download email messages and compose or work on the messages offline, although there are software packages that can integrate parts of the webmail functionality into the OS (e.g. creating messages directly from third party applications via MAPI).
Like IMAP and MAPI, webmail provides for email messages to remain on the mail server. See next section.