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Pros and cons of webmail

written by: John Lister•edited by: Brian Nelson•updated: 7/7/2011

Webmail services, where you can access your messages through a website rather than running separate software, are becoming more popular. We run through the advantages and disadvantages of such services.

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    It works on any machine. As long as you can remember your user name and password, you can access a webmail service from any computer with an internet connection. This is handy if you are on the move or staying away from home. It also means that you can use multiple machines (such as a home desktop and a laptop) without having to worry about keeping all your messages in order.

    Works with any internet provider. You don’t have to worry about changing your e-mail address when you change from one internet provider to another.

    Searchable. Some webmail firms allow you to search through your e-mails to find a particular phrase, either in the subject line or the message itself. This is usually a much more effective process than you’ll find in a traditional e-mail program which runs on your computer.

    Large storage limits. Most webmail providers allow you to store thousands of messages complete with attachments, to the point that you’ll never hit the limit. This cuts down on the amount of data you’d otherwise be storing on your computer, which is particularly useful for laptop computers and other devices with smaller hard disk sizes.

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    You need an internet connection. These days this isn’t a problem for many users thanks to reliable broadband. If you are in a region where internet access is unreliable, there’s a risk that you might not be able to access your messages (both new ones and old ones.)

    Service isn’t guaranteed. Even the best-maintained web mail service has outages now and again, during which you’ll be without e-mail. However, these are really quite rare, which is why when it does happen there is so much media attention.

    The company might lose all the messages! This is theoretically possible. However, in practice, the fear of legal action (and the huge budget available) means a reputable web firm will usually be able to protect your data from loss or damage many times more effectively than you can do on your computer.

    Most webmail services are partially supported by advertising. This isn’t generally obtrusive, however.

    You may find an increase in spam. This is not really a specific result of webmail; rather it’s because there are so many people using the major services, giving spammers a bigger audience.

    Privacy concerns. Webmail providers will have access to all your messages (though the same is true with traditional e-mail providers). This is particularly noticeable with Gmail, which uses the contents of your messages to figure out relevant adverts to show you. However, all reputable firms should provide a privacy policy so you can see how your data will be used and protected.

    You may have trouble getting a good e-mail address. The sheer number of users means ‘your’ name may have already gone and you’ll have to find a potentially clumsy variation. Some people may also think a webmail e-mail address comes across as unprofessional. If this is a worry, check whether an e-mail provider lets you set up and account but receive and send messages using a different address (such as from a domain name, for example

    As you’ll have noticed, the list of cons is longer than the list of pros. However, most of the disadvantages are fairly minor and most people will find the advantages far outweigh them.