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So let's say you want to set-up a new email account but you have little or no understanding of the different types of email accounts. You need someone to clearly explain the differences. Well today you're in luck because that is just what we are going to do.


The Difference Between an Email Client and Webmail 

Before we explain the different protocols used to download emails, let’s quickly review  the difference between email clients and webmail. You’re using an email client if you work in an office and use a program like Microsoft Outlook or Windows Live Mail to manage your emails. Most likely, you are using Webmail if have a Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or other email account.


Both applications use similar methods for sending and receiving email. Webmail is an application that does not require any downloads and/or software set-up. It is accessed and operated via the Internet through a Web browser. Webmail resides on an email service provider's server and your email account can be remotely accessed by you using a browser from any computer with an Internet connection.


On the other hand, Email Clients are programs that are installed on local computers [i.e. computer(s), and/or server(s) in your office].  To send an email your computer's installed email software manages the email set-up, accounts, and email deployments with the installed email software application, rather than by your Web browser - like you do with Webmail.


For example, you have a Google Gmail account and begin sending and receiving emails. Google is providing a Web interface (i.e. frontend), and a mail server (i.e. backend) for sending and receiving the emails. Our Gmail account's frontend communicates with the Gmail  server's backend by using the webmail frontend. You write and set-up an email, select your recipients, and send it via the Gmail server

Now let's say you do not like Gmail's message layout and design. You can switch to an email client, like the client software called Thunderbird. Instead of using Gmail's Web-based application to write and deploy emails you can now use Thunderbird which is installed on your computer.  This application is engineered to give you the best of both worlds, an email client (Thunderbird) that interfaces with Webmail (Gmail).  You can usually find and license these applications with your Webmail provider.



Post Office Protocol or POP was created in 1984 and POP2 quickly followed in early 1985. Today, POP3 provides an easy way to utilize low bandwidth to retrieve email messages. With POP3, you download copies of emails from a POP3 email server and once you have downloaded your emails to your desktop, the original emails are then removed from the server. POP3 Protocol is still one of the most common and widely used email protocols.  Even though POP3 protocol is an older technology engineered to send and offload emails from the server, it has still offers a simple and useful application for users.


IMAP, Internet Message Access Protocol 

In 1986 IMAP was introduced.  IMAP was engineered to allow users to access email from any location 24/7 to be free from having to access their email single email client. Unlike POP3, where users download emails to their computer, IMAP enables users to log into many different email clients or Webmail interfaces and read stored emails from any computer with Internet access. Email are stored on the IMAP server until the user deletes them.


Today, we are connected 24/7 and check our email on a variety of electronic devices. This need to be constantly connected to our information, has elevated IMAP to becoming the most widely used protocol.


Now IMAP does have its limitations. IMAP emails are stored on a remote server. The number and size of the emails can exceed mailbox storage limitations set by the email service provider. If a large number of emails stored in your account exceed space limitations (i.e. full email box), you may encounter problems sending and receiving emails. A solution to this potential problem is to save copies of your emails locally and then delete the saved emails from your account to create space in your mailbox.


Microsoft Exchange, MAPI, and Exchange ActiveSync 

Microsoft's MAPI (i.e. Messaging API) was engineered to enable email clients to communicate with Microsoft Exchange Servers. Like IMAP, it brings together and interfaces emails, contacts, calendars, and other features into local email clients or applications. The function of syncing emails is called “Exchange ActiveSync”. Depending on what device you use to access this system the application may be called Microsoft Exchange, MAPI, or Exchange ActiveSync. Like IMAP, MAPI delivers cloud-based email syncing.

Exchange and MAPI are Microsoft products. To use this protocol, companies must license the software and own a Windows licensed server, or use Windows Live Hotmail. Email Clients, like Android and iPhone are Exchange ActiveSync ready. This enables Hotmail users to have IMAP cloud-based features even though Hotmail does not offer IMAP functionality.



Other Email Protocols 

Now there are other email protocols but the protocols we've already discussed here are primarily used by almost all email users so we will stop right here to try and keep it simple.


Use POP3 if... 

• You use one email client on one dedicated computer (e.g. office computer).   Although, you may want to consider IMAP.

• You need to keep a large archive of emails stored and the remote email server does not have the drive space to store them.


Use IMAP if... 

• You will your check your email from multiple devices.

• You want to use a Webmail service like Gmail to sync with your IOS or Android device.


Use Exchange, MAPI, Exchange ActiveSync, or Hotmail if... 

• If you want cloud-based syncing use Exchange Server Email, MAPI, Exchange ActiveSync, or Hotmail.

• If you use Hotmail, use MAPI/Exchange ActiveSync.

Google Gmail IMAP Protocol

Google Gmail IMAP iPhone IOS

Comparing Email Protocols (POP3, IMAP, & MS Exchange)

Exchange Server Admin 


M2 Digital Technologies



Kyle Martell is co-founder and CEO of M2 Digital Technologies, the parent company of M2 Hosting. Kyle brings 22 years of experience in digital marketing and application development. He brings a unique understanding of digital business transformation initiatives, direct marketing, e-commerce platforms & delivery, mobile application development, cloud hosting, as well as an extensive digital marketing background to each client engagement. He offers clients a unique blend of expertise, helping them to set and evolve their digital business strategy to improve each customer's experience and increase profits.

May 15, 2016  |  Kyle Martell