Email with webmail or software - what's the difference?

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How can you tell if you’re reading email in a web browser or using email software like Outlook for Windows or Mac?  This might seem obvious to some but many people use ’email’ without understanding the important difference between webmail and email programs.

There are two ways to read and send emails:

  • use software/apps like Outlook.
  • via a web browser.

It’s the same email account and messages but viewed and managed in different ways.

Both Google and Microsoft use confusing naming, leading to people not appreciating the important difference.  People talk about using ‘Gmail’ or ‘Outlook’ without knowing the important specifics.  Those details matter if you’re trying to get support or even ‘how to’ help online.

Mail host vs how you get your email

Gmail, and Yahoo Mail (among others) are mail services or mail hosts.  They get your email, calendar and contacts, save them on ‘cloud’ servers that you can access from any Internet connected device.

It’s a great service, your data is saved in one place that’s available from any device – desktop, laptop, phone, tablet or whatever.   It’s way better than the past where your email was on just one computer which made it difficult to see from other machines.  There were complex, messy and know obsolete ways to share Outlook for Windows data between computers.

Know the difference between your mail host (Gmail,, ISP etc) and how you view that mail (Web browser or email program).  The way companies name their products and services doesn’t always make that clear.

Email in a web browser aka Webmail

You can see Gmail/ etc via a web browser like this.  It’s Gmail running in a web browser.

We know from many emails to that many people think this is the only way to get their email.  We get questions about ‘Outlook’ from people who really mean they’re using in a web browser, not software Outlook for Windows/Mac.

Microsoft doesn’t help with (deliberately?) confusing marketing.

Anything to do with email gets the ‘Outlook’ brand slapped on it. Above is email viewed in a browser with just ‘Outlook’ prominent.   Not ‘’ just plain ‘Outlook’.

The giveaway is the browser window with the address bar (web link), tabs etc.

If your organization uses Exchange Server or Office 365 mail hosting then you’ll probably know about the web page option. It was originally called ‘Outlook Web Access’ now ‘Outlook Web App’. OWA or ‘Oh-Waa’ to its friends.

Webmail looks and acts like an email program but it’s really a sophisticated web page.  So complex that it’s really a program running inside the browser but with a crucial difference.  Webmail doesn’t save your mail on the computer.

Email programs like Microsoft Outlook for Windows/Mac

These are full email/calendar/contacts programs or apps that run on Windows or Mac.  These programs are much better for regular and offline use.

Both Windows and Mac come with their own email programs.  Windows 10 and MacOS come with their own, quite different, email programs both are called ‘Mail’.

Windows 10 ‘Mail’ program

Or there’s the more powerful Microsoft Outlook for Windows/Mac.  Outlook Windows/Mac comes with most Office bundles including Office 365 Home or Personal.

Portable Devices

Apple and Android devices also have their own mail apps.

Once upon a time …

In the early days of the public Internet, everyone needed an email program to see and make emails.  There was no other way.

Then came – which combined a web page with mail hosting.  You could get an email address (independent of ISP’s) and manage your mail via a web page.

Hotmail and later services like Gmail and Yahoo Mail let you access mail via an email program like Microsoft Outlook or on the web page. In the early days email programs moved mail from online to your computer program.

These services added an important part of modern email; storing all your mail (calendar & contacts) online.  Not just the recent messages but everything past and present.    Programs like Outlook could synchronize with the online store (i.e. keep a copy on your computer of what’s saved online).

Today, with a decent mail host, you can see your email/calendar/contacts from any connected device.  Preferably with an email program/app but also via a webpage.

Nerd Notes

This article has deliberately simplified matters.  To clarify for anyone who thinks we’ve ‘forgotten’ something <g>.

  • We’ve talked about ’email’ but good mail hosts also keep calendar and contacts in the same account.
  • Internet Service Provider (ISP) usually doesn’t have these extras nor do they let users keep all their past messages. It’s the main reason why most people have moved away from limited ISP based email to a full online service like or Gmail.
  • Some webmail has ‘caching’ to save some messages on your computer. This usually happens in the background and can make webmail work faster because it doesn’t have to check over the Internet as much. Gmail in a web browser has an ‘offline’ option available.  Caching is a great idea but doesn’t work well in practice.  It’s no replacement for proper synchronization.  While caching reduces the Internet traffic it doesn’t stop them altogether.  On a slow Internet connection, even cached webmail can be sluggish and annoying.
  • Most email programs/apps use synchronization with an online mail store and default to that, if available. It’s still possible to move mail from online to a computer (i.e. POP mail) but that’s less common than synchronization using IMAP or ActiveSync.
  • Which email program/app you use is up to you. As MS Office specialists we naturally prefer Outlook for Windows/Mac for the many features and power.
  • We strongly REJECT the Outlook apps for Apple or Android. Despite the Outlook name, Outlook apps are very different from Outlook for Windows/Mac.  Outlook apps have a privacy limitation that makes them unacceptable despite Microsoft’s hype.



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