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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 5 Issue 7July 2011
In This Issue
5 Problems With Webmail That Can Drive You Crazy!
Do you use webmail? Here's my advice on how to cope with the most common problems.
5 Problems With Webmail That Can Drive You Crazy!

In last month's newsletter I pointed out that webmail is a great way to access your email from multiple computers while avoiding all of the issues trying to do that using regular email software.

However, whether you use a Windows computer or a Macintosh, if you use webmail (or AOL) there are a number of problems and limitations you'll probably encounter.

The term "webmail" (web-based email) refers to getting your email on a website using a web browser program like Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, etc., instead of using a regular email program like Outlook Express, Outlook, Apple Mail, etc. For example:
  • If you have a consumer email address like johnsmith@gmail.com you'll find your webmail at http://www.gmail.com, for marybrown@verizon.net you'd go to http://www.verizon.net, etc.
  • If you have a domain email address like martin@kadansky.com, you'll need to ask your email hosting company for the web address of your webmail. It's usually a variation of the domain name ("kadansky.com" in this example).
Problem #1: You click on a link on a website to send an email, but you end up in a series of strange and confusing windows that ultimately won't let you send any messages

Here is how this usually happens:
  • You're looking at a web site, say, http://www.kadansky.com, and reading about something that interests you - a product or service or article. You see "...email me at martin@kadansky.com for more information" or "click here to contact us."
  • You decide to contact the people who run the website, and since email is an easy and convenient choice, you click on that link.
  • However, instead of creating a new message in your familiar webmail interface, you get a strange series of windows that ask you for information about you and your email account, including your password. You're not sure why it's asking, but you enter the information anyway.
  • Then a message window eventually opens. It's not what you're used to, but at least you can finally compose your message.
  • However, when you finish writing your message and click "Send," you get an error, and it won't send your message after all!
Has this ever happened to you? Isn't it really frustrating?

Here's what's really going on:
  • When you click an "email link" on a website, that asks your computer to "Please create a new message in the default email program." This simple-minded mechanism assumes that you are using a regular email program like Outlook Express or Apple Mail.
  • Unfortunately, you're using webmail, and while you'd like this simple click to direct your computer to open your web browser, go to your webmail, and start a new message, this rigid mechanism has no option for that, it will only open a regular email program. Thus you land in an email program that's never been set up before, and since you don't know how to configure it (and even that might just not be possible for your particular email account), you're stuck in a confusing dead-end, which was set in motion the moment you clicked on that email link. I call this "stepping in gum, computer-style."
The only way to solve this problem is to avoid clicking on such email links, or immediately Cancel if you do click on one by accident. Instead, note the email address from the web site (or select it and Copy it to the clipboard), go to your webmail, start a new message, enter the email address (or Paste it from the clipboard), and proceed from there. Yes, you shouldn't have to put up with this inconvenience. No, this silly gap in the infrastructure is probably not going to be fixed anytime soon.

Problem #2: You can't use webmail if your computer is offline
By its very nature, webmail is "in the cloud." If your internet connection isn't working, you can't look at your old messages, compose a "draft" message to be sent later, or work with your Address Book, all of which you could do if you used a regular email program and your computer were offline.

Problem #3: You can't directly back up your messages or Address Book
Unlike a regular email program, which stores your data on your computer's hard disk, webmail systems store your data on the email server, which does not give you direct access to its hard disk. This makes backing up your messages or Address Book difficult.

  • Most webmail systems have an "export" function you can use to download your Address Book onto your computer's hard disk for safekeeping. It is very important that you do this periodically, since for most people this list is very valuable.
  • Some email servers support IMAP, a protocol that permits you to use a regular email program to access the messages in all of your mailboxes (Inbox, Sent, Drafts, etc.), enabling you (with a moderate amount of work) to manually back up all of your messages without removing them from the server.
  • Some email servers only support POP, which permits you to use a regular email program to access the messages in your Inbox only, effectively preventing you from backing up all of your messages without a lot of work (temporarily moving messages from your Inbox to another mailbox, shuffling messages from other mailboxes into your Inbox, being careful to use the "Leave on Server" option, etc.).
Problem #4: Your webmail system's features may be limited
Some webmail systems are great, but others only have limited features compared to regular email programs. You may find that you have no (or a very limited) ability to:
  • Spell check your messages
  • Use formatted text (bold, italic, underlining, multiple fonts, sizes, color, etc.)
  • Select multiple messages
  • Set up email "Signatures" (text automatically appended to each message)
  • Mark messages as "read" or "unread"
  • "Flag" messages as important or interesting for later follow-up
  • Filter out "spam" messages
  • Add an email address from a message directly into your Address Book
  • Manage multiple email accounts
  • Search your messages using keywords
  • Sort your messages by Date, From, To, Subject, Size, etc.
  • See all messages in a given mailbox in one scrolling list
  • See the size of each message
Even Gmail, one of the most sophisticated webmail systems I've ever seen, only sorts messages by Date (not From or To or Subject), will only show at most 100 messages per "page," and does not display the sizes of individual messages at all.

Problem #5: If you don't keep your computer and browser software up-to-date, one day your webmail may suddenly stop working
Unlike a regular email program (which can continue to work unchanged for years on end), as your webmail provider adds more features or starts to use newer technology, from time to time you may have problems using your webmail, or the company may drop support for older browsers or computers entirely. At least twice this year Gmail has announced that they will no longer support certain older generations of web browsers, forcing many users of older software or computers to upgrade.

  • Don't ignore the updates for your operating system and web browser. Within reason, let your computer install them. However, beware certain updates that may render your web browser unusable, e.g., Internet Explorer 8 for Windows may require more RAM than is physically present in an older computer.
  • Sometimes switching from one supported web browser (e.g., Internet Explorer or Safari) to another (e.g., Firefox or Chrome) can extend the ability of an older computer to access your webmail.
  • Webmail is a great way to access your email, but it's important to understand its strengths and weaknesses, especially when compared to a regular email program.
  • Back up your webmail Address Book, it's one of your most valuable pieces of data. Look for an "export" function.
Where to go from here
See my previous newsletters that discuss webmail:
If you're confused or frustrated by something on your computer, I like to say, "You can do it!" You might just need a little encouragement, or information, or change of perspective, and that's where I come in.
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

Did you miss a previous issue? You can find it in my newsletter archive: http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

Your privacy is important to me. I do not share my newsletter mailing list with anyone else, nor do I rent it out.

Copyright (C) 2011 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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