Basics of electronic mail (email)

As it implies, electronic mail (or email or just email) is a way of sending mail electronically. In early days, e-mail was sent in plain-text (ASCII) format in academic settings. However, e-mail now has risen to include other types of communications such as commercial, political, and social. In terms of the format, email can be created and sent in HTML that can have embedded pictures, sound, and videos, subject to the constraints of the file-size limitations imposed by the sender’s and receiver’s account.

The most important part of the internet is probably the use of email. Originally, one of the main reasons behind linking computers was to send electronic mail. To send an email, all you need is an internet connection and an email client such as Lotus Notes from IBM (stands for International Business Machines), Microsoft Outlook, or a web account from popular websites such as (from Microsoft), (from Yahoo!), (from Google), and so on. You don’t need a PC (personal computer) to send an email, email can be sent using wireless handheld devices, such PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) and cell phones (or mobile phones).

When you send an email (or technically when your email client sends an email), your email server is contacted to transfer the message to the destination email server. Depending on the method your email server uses (your email service provider chooses the method of transferring messages), your message can be sent anywhere in the world in seconds. Is this fast? Is it faster than postal mail or fax? Yes!

Once the message has been sent, it can be viewed by the intended recipient. Let’s go over some of the technical details on how the message is read. When the recipient of a message connects to his/her email server (let’s call this receiving email server), the receiving email server sends a brief information on each message in the Inbox. Normally, in an Inbox for each message you can expect to find subject, sender name/email, and time of the message when it was sent. This information loads faster because only brief information is shown for each message in the Inbox.

Figure 1 shows an overview of how a message travels from a sender’s computer to the recipient’s computer. As the figure shows, there are these main processes involved in delivery of a message:

  • The sender creates an email message and requests it to be sent by pressing the "Send" button.
  • The message goes to the sender’s email server. This server forwards the message to the appropriate channels for delivery of the message.
  • The recipient’s email server receives the message.
  • When the recipient connects his email client to his email server, the server returns the new message (and other messages in response to the recipient’s request).
Illustration of how an email message is sent and received
Figure 1 an overview of how an email is sent and delivered

Depending on the email client being used, the recipient will click on the subject or any other field about the message to read the message. This clicking activates the download of the message from the email server to the recipient’s computer. In seconds usually the messages finishes downloading to the user’s computer. Note: network speed and size of the message influences the message download time.

After the download is complete, the recipient can perform any number of actions such as:

  • Reply – this will allow the recipient to write back to the sender.
  • Forward – this action sends the original message to the recipient’s choosing
  • Organize – place the message in a specific folder. For example, all emails coupon offers can be placed under a folder called shopping or coupons.
  • Delete – this deletes the message.

For each of these actions to be successful, the server needs to know of the action. This is because the server will be running the actual program instructions that will make the reply, forward, organization, or delete possible. This is more evident if the internet connection is lost to the server or for any other reason the server becomes unreachable when you initiate the desired action. This can be easily tested by hitting Reply on a message after disabling internet connection on a computer.

Email box folders

Email folders serve as storage areas for different types of email message you have. Typically, the folders are listed on the left side of the window. There are four main folders available with an email account:

  • Inbox: This folder holds all your incoming messages. When you first get an email account, you may receive the first message from the email service provider to welcome you to the service. By default, email client displays the content of Inbox folder.
  • Sent: This folder holds a copy of each message you have sent.
  • Deleted: This folder holds your deleted messages. When you delete a message, you can find it in this folder. The folder may hold the deleted message for many days. This depends on how long your email service provider allows your account to hold the deleted messages.
  • Spam: This folder holds your spam messages. All messages that land in this folder are not necessarily spam so make sure to regularly check this folder.
Posted on 9/3/2007
by Raj Singh