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  • Webmail

What is Webmail?

Email is an essential communication tool used around the world, and most hosting providers include support for one or more email accounts with their hosting packages. Webmail, or email accessed using an online-only client, is emerging as an important tool for busy professionals as business on the Web becomes increasingly mobile.

Many hosting providers include support for email as part of their standard packages. As one of today's leading forms of interpersonal communication, email is an essential part of running a successful website—and business—and one of the most important parts of any modern email service is webmail.

Unlike traditional email clients that are installed on your machine or run from your local server, webmail is (as the name implies) accessed directly from the Web via the browser on your computer or mobile device. Webmail makes it easy to take your mail “on the go” without having to install a specific application or tinker with the mail settings on your computer, tablet or smartphone. You just type in the Web address provided by your host, enter your email username and password, and you're in!

As a rule, webmail has many of the same functions as standard email, including composing, replying, forwarding and support for attachments. More advanced webmail clients also offer synchronized archiving with your desktop client, allowing you to access your local archive from your mobile device or save attachments from previously-downloaded messages.

Some webmail clients, however, require a constant connection to the Internet to function, and so do not offer offline message downloads or archiving. This means you may not be able to read mail offline or even compose a new message, since the browser cannot load your mail environment to do so.

Webmail is email accessed using a web browser. Thanks to services like Gmail and Hotmail, most web users will understand how this works. Web hosts also offer webmail services so that their customers can log into their email accounts without using email software. But webmail is not equal on every hosting plan.

Why Use Webmail?

Most of us carry a phone or tablet that connects frequently to our email server. At specified intervals, the device may connect to your mailbox, look for new messages and download them to your device. You might prefer Push email, where a new message is downloaded as soon as it arrives. And with IMAP, you can synchronise your view across multiple devices.

Webmail is a little different. It allows you to access your email account using a web browser. Web hosting companies offer webmail tools so that you can access any mailbox without downloading or installing anything at all.

You'll normally find webmail options in your host's control panel software. For many hosts, that's cPanel, but it may also be Plesk, or your host's custom control panel. The way the webmail system works depends on how your host has provisioned it.

Pros and Cons

Webmail is handy to have on your account because:

  • You login using a simple form: just tap in a username and password
  • It allows you to check messages from anywhere
  • You don't need to have any email software installed
  • It's fast and easy to read and reply to emails

The main downsides of webmail are:

  • Features - or, rather, the lack of them. If you have a Gmail account, you might be surprised by how few options your host's webmail software gives you in comparison
  • Security - or lack of it. Your webmail account probably isn't provided over a secure server, unless you've set this up with your host
  • Non-standard or old-fashioned interfaces
  • Lack of modern features like HTML formatting
  • Clunky URLs to access the webmail tool
  • Vulnerability to slow speeds, depending on the quality of service you enjoy from your host

None of these cons are deal breakers, but they make webmail slightly less pleasant to use.

Types of Webmail

Your options will vary from host to host, but look out for the following webmail tools:

  • Squirrelmail, which has a very basic user interface. It works very well on slow connections, but is not very easy on the eye. On the plus side, it has industry-standard navigation, so you can use it without prior experience
  • RoundCube, an open source webmail client. The first stable release was published in April 2014 after eight years in development
  • Horde, a well rounded webmail client that has various quirks which won't sit well with everyone. It works fine, but requires some patience while you learn your way around
  • SmarterMail, a Windows-only application that can be accessed via the Plesk control panel

Many hosts have their own custom clients, too.

Do I Need Webmail Support?

Most of us have a webmail account we can access in a pinch - such as a spare Gmail account - and we can bash out a quick email in seconds. But could you access critical business email in a couple of minutes using the same method? It's still handy to have webmail access to your host's email accounts, even if it's basic and a bit unattractive. You never know when you'll forget your phone, or need to print something out from an internet cafe on the run.

There are other ways to access your email via a third party service, and you can also set up various forwarding rules. But as solutions go, none of them are as neat. For emergencies, or speed, it's worth checking that webmail is included in your web hosting service.

Webmail Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are some good reasons to use webmail?

    Webmail applications allow people access to their most important communication channel for personal and business use on any device connected to the Internet. With webmail, users who have email accounts have no need for additional desktop-based software like Outlook or Thunderbird. Instead, if they have a connection to the internet, their webmail URL, their username and password, they can stay up to date with the contents of their inbox anytime.

  • Are there any reasons not to use webmail?

    Because webmail is dependent upon Internet browsers to be readable by a user, the viewing experience may vary depending on what browser you are using. This variable in presentation can be very confusing to users who are less comfortable with using the Internet and mobile devices to read their email.

  • What are the alternatives to webmail?

    The most common alternative to webmail is email hosted on a server connected to a private network. To make this alternative email system work, users need access to the network or access through either a VPN or other direct connection. Other alternatives include hosted email solutions like Gmail or Hotmail, which are web-based but hosted directly by the service provider, not on an individual web server.

  • Do I have to know how to program to use webmail?

    The webmail client is likely included as a service from your hosting provider, so you shouldn't have to know how to program to use webmail. Most of the account setup for creating each user and deploying mailbox space, etc. is done through an administration portal. Once the accounts are created and DNS records are updated, each user can update their own personal settings through the webmail application.

  • What are the requirements for webmail hosting?

    Requirements for using webmail hosting are fairly standard. Once your email addresses are setup, your mailbox space is confirmed, and your DNS records are updated, then email can be delivered to your inboxes and read through a variety of interfaces. The major technical system requirements are not the responsibility of the hosting account holder. Instead, they are the responsibility of the hosting provider.

  • Are there any additional specific hosting recommendations?

    Your mailboxes are likely to have either a specific amount of storage space. On average, this is around 2GB of storage. Under normal email usage, this is plenty of space for each of your mailboxes. However, some webmail hosting providers may allow you to pool your email storage across all of your mailboxes. With pooling of your email storage, you may be able to keep your webmail hosting fees from growing due to storage increases required to host a few accounts.

  • What does self-hosted mean? I don’t have to run a server myself, do I?

    Self-hosted websites do not require YOU to personally own a server and manage it to host your site. Instead, self-hosted simply means that hosting is not provided directly by the development team that created your website builder. In order to use a self-hosted website builder, you will need to contract a hosting provider before building your website.

  • Do I need managed hosting in order to use webmail as my email platform?

    The answer to this question depends on your answer to the question "how much responsibility are you willing to accept for the maintenance of your website?" The more complex your site becomes with modules, features, and streaming applications, the greater your need will be for professionally managed website hosting. Shared hosting often comes with some managed services included. If you have a dedicated hosting solution, however, managed services are likely required as part of your agreement. This is the case with any self-hosted website builder.

  • Can I host webmail on a shared hosting plan?

    The answer to this question may actually lie in the hands of your hosting provider. However, many hosting providers offer some form of webmail with any hosting plan - shared, dedicated, or virtual. The amount of features a webmail service can provide may vary on a shared hosting plan, but hosting one is still possible. Consult with your hosting provider to make sure you understand the features of a webmail plan included in a shared hosting package before you determine if it is right for you.

  • How does webmail compare to Gmail as an email platform?

    For many small businesses and website owners, it is hard to argue against the features available from Gmail. While it is not a self-hosted email platform, Gmail offers a large amount of free storage (as much as 7x as much as leading webmail platforms), tabbed inboxes, unified communications, mobile apps and more. A self-hosted webmail application does have some benefits like the professional appearance of hosting mailboxes on your own domain, but the complete features of Gmail for a similar cost make it hard to pass up.

  • How does webmail compare to Microsoft Exchange as an email platform?

    Microsoft Exchange is a corporate-class email platform. Many leading site hosting providers also offer a hosted exchange solution as a premium email alternative to webmail. Like webmail, hosted Microsoft Exchange is accessible through an online platform called Outlook Web Access, and there is no software required to sync it to mobile devices. Unlike webmail, however, hosted exchange is an enterprise-grade platform for communication and personal management. Instead of simply being an email solution, hosted exchange also has calendaring, task management, and can be connected to other accounts for increased collaboration amongst a team. While webmail is a fine solution for a first-time website owner, if a company is looking to webmail, they might not have all of the features they need to properly operate their business.

  • How does webmail compare to Office 365 as an email platform?

    Office 365 is another premium email option for website owners and small businesses. While webmail is only a solution for email, however, Office 365 is once again a more comprehensive offering. In addition to a web based email platform with compatibility on mobile devices, Office 365 also comes equipped with Microsoft Office online, large mailboxes, file storage and video conferencing. Once again, webmail is a nice solution - but webmail is a singular solution. By comparison, website owners today can get far more than email from their email platform. Because of this fact, it seems senseless to choose simple webmail over a solution like Office 365.

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