Webmail is a web application that allows users to read and write e-mail using a web browser.

Webmail is commonly offered as a service by Internet companies, sometimes in exchange for providing personal information for marketing purposes. It may also be offered by one's Internet service provider for remote access to a regular email account. Many companies also provide web-based access to their internal email systems, for use by employees when at home or travelling. There are many open source programs that allow one to set up an HTTP mail user agent (see external link below).

Some mail servers, such as Microsoft Exchange or Kerio MailServer, contain built-in webmail interface.



Most webmail services have the following features:

Several webmail services offer the following features:

  • E-mail spam detection
  • POP3 mail retrieval
  • anti-virus checking of mail attachments
  • dictionary and thesaurus when composing messages
  • spell checker

Advantages of webmail services

  • Email can be read and composed anywhere a person has access to a web browser and an internet connection.
  • Messages do not have to be downloaded.
  • Many services allow anonymous sign-ups.

Disadvantages of webmail services

  • The user must stay online to read and write more than one email. They cannot easily edit mails they are working on offline (except by cutting and pasting the text).
  • Commercial webmail services often offer only limited email storage space and either display advertisements during use or append them to mails sent. Unlike with a local client, the user cannot keep the messages on their local hard drive.
  • Webmail can be hampered by a slow network connection.
  • Most emails are usually short, plain text messages of less than 2 KB, but using webmail the original email is wrapped in the website's HTML, which can be 40 KB or more. Obviously this brings a significant decrease in speed of use.
  • If the provider goes down, you no longer have your mails. Although this doesn't happen usually, it's quite possible.

Other features of webmail

  • Webmail accounts can be set up and discarded quickly, thus can provide a degree of anonymity.
  • The ability to access it anywhere means it is harder to trace the individual who uses an account than if they used a connection associated with their home address.

These features mean it can in theory be more easily used as a communication tool for nefarious purposes (or for avoiding oppressive authorities) than conventional e-mail. In practice, most governments security agencies are fairly easily able to track individuals who try to use such methods, just as with someone who calls from phone booths. Ordinary citizens will find it more difficult, however.


Historically, the first webmail service was Hotmail, created in 1995 by Sabeer Bhatia of India. Hotmail became very popular, and was later bought by Microsoft and re-branded MSN Hotmail.

Since then, webmail offerings are widespread, with offers ranging from Chinese portal Sina to European portals such as Voila.fr or GMX.de.

In early 2004, Google announced the arrival of Gmail, a free search-based webmail solution including new features such as a 2 GB storage limit, conversation threading and labels to replace the need for folders. It also featured small contextual text-based advertisements based upon the content of messages (though for a short while this did provoke some privacy concerns). This has strongly stimulated competition in this sphere, forcing most webmails, and in particular Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail, to review their web-mails offers and increase their storage from a few MB to several hundred MB.

There is webmail software available that allows one to create ones own webmail server, notably open source software such as Horde IMP or Squirrelmail. Many universities take advantage of this software to provide students and faculty with university webmail.

Gigabyte storage

Due to the heavy media coverage of Gmail's initial announcement of 1 gigabyte of storage, many existing web mail services quickly increased their storage capacity, as did many ISPs. This was seen as a move to stop existing users from switching to Gmail, and to capitalize on the newly rekindled public interest in web mail services. Below is a brief outline of the course of events following Gmail's initial release.

  • On March 31, 2004, Gmail was initially released with 1 gigabyte of storage space per user. On April 1st, 2005 (Gmail's first birthday), Gmail increased each user's storage quota to more than 2 gigabytes. This new figure and the original offering of 1000 megabytes are hundreds of times more than what other webmail services offered at the time of Gmail's original announcement in 2004.
  • On April 5, 2004, Spymac became the first open-to-the-public free email service to offer a gigabyte of storage.
  • On May 29, 2004, the European edition of Lycos raised its paid storage allowance to 1 GB.
  • On June 15, 2004, popular web mail competitor Yahoo! Mail increased its free storage space to 100 MB and its paid storage space to 2 GB. (Free storage space for Yahoo! Mail was later increased to 250 MB on December 2, 2004.)
  • On June 18, 2004, Rediff.com headquartered in Mumbai, India, increased the storage capacity of its free public Rediffmail service to one gigabyte.
  • On June 24, 2004, Microsoft's Hotmail increased storage space to 250 MB and 2 GB for its free and paid email services. (Users outside the US is not elligible for the increase in space)
  • Throughout June, the Israeli search site Walla upgraded their service to 1 GB of space.
  • On July 29, 2004, Yahoo! Mail increased space to 1 GB for its users in China in hopes of getting a foothold in the country's booming internet market.
  • On March 21, 2005, Streamload announced the launch of xStreamMail. The first email enhancement system specifically designed for sending and sharing collections of full-quality videos and photos, xStreamMail users are given 10 GB of free email storage and file attachment limits to paying subscribers of 50 terabytes per email.
  • On March 23, 2005, Yahoo! Mail announced that it will soon (in late April) begin giving all users of its free Web e-mail service 1 gigabyte of storage.
  • On April 1, 2005, its first anniversary, Gmail increased its storage size to 2 GB, and its storage has increased constantly since then at a rate that works out to 1 GB per year, a rate that Google pledges it will keep up as long as its servers have room. The current figure can be viewed at http://www.gmail.com/.

Further followers of the big mailbox trend (servies marked with a "($)" require payment):

de:Webmail fr:Webmail it:Webmail nl:Webmail zh:Webmail


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