I’m going to use this as an opportunity to clear up some confusion I see all the time. You might not believe me, but the confusion is extremely common. (And Microsoft isn’t helping any, as we’ll see.)
An email program is not at all the same thing as an email service, or an email account, or even an email address.
When it comes to technology, terminology is important. Time for some definitions so you won’t be confused.
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Email terms, briefly
- An email service is the company, servers, and software handling your email to route it to its destination.
- An email account is your relationship with an email service, and all the storage, features, and functionality included.
- An email address uniquely identifies your mailbox as provided by your email service.
- An email program is computer software you run to download and manage email on your computer.
An email service is something like Outlook.com, Yahoo! Mail, Gmail, or the services provided by your ISP, domain registrar, school, or place of employment. The service they provide includes the servers and software that:
- Route the email you send on the first leg of its journey to its recipient.
- Collect the email you receive in a location where you can access it.
To begin a metaphor, think of an email service as an apartment building in which you live.
An email account is a relationship you establish with an email service, and all the storage, features, and functionality included. This may include more than email services. For example, Microsoft and Gmail accounts include not only email, but cloud storage services, messaging services, calendaring, contacts, and much more.
An account is often, though not always, identified by a single email address.
In our apartment building, this is the equivalent of the apartment in which you live.
An email address uniquely identifies your mailbox as provided by your email service. When a message is sent to your email address, it’s collected by your email service and placed in a mailbox, which you access through your email account.
Email addresses are always in this format:
The domain — the part after the “@” — is used to route email to the email service. The service is often obvious from the domain — such as outlook.com, gmail.com, and so on. The domain is used to identify the mail service1 handling its email.
As an email message is on its way from sender to recipient, the name — the part before the “@” — is completely ignored until it reaches the email service handling the email account. Once it arrives, the name is examined to see which account should receive the mail.
In our apartment building, the domain is like the street address: it gets the mail to your building. Your email account is your apartment. Your email address is like the apartment number. In the mailroom, the mail clerk uses your email name to place the message in the correct box.
As soon as you say “program”, you’re talking about computer software. An email program is software you run on your computer to access your email. Examples include Microsoft Outlook, which is included in Microsoft Office (not Outlook.com), Thunderbird, the Mail program pre-installed in Windows 10, and many others.
An email program must be configured with your email account information, including your email address(es), password, and more.
Confusion #1: Email programs versus email websites
There are two basic ways to access email: using an email program on your computer or visiting a website online. The latter is often referred to as web-based email.
When you use an email program, email is downloaded to your computer.
When you visit an email website — like gmail.com, outlook.com, or others — you’re not using an email program. Instead, you’re using your web browser (like Edge, Chrome, Firefox, or others) to visit a website where your email is displayed to you. The email is not downloaded to your computer; it remains on the service’s servers, in the cloud.
An email program is like the person you hire to run and get your mail from the mailroom and bring it to your apartment. Using your web browser is like running down to the mailroom yourself and leaving all of your mail there.
Confusion #2: It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping2
So, is gmail.com, for example, an email service? An account? An address? A program? A website?
Some of the above, depending on what you’re talking about.
- Gmail.com is the website and domain associated with Google’s mail service, Google Mail. While Google Mail can be delivered via other domains, it’s safe to think of “Gmail” (without the .com) as synonymous with Google Mail. Thus, yes, we think of it as a mail service.
- Gmail.com is not enough to identify an email account or address. It’s not until we add a name — like askleoexample — to @gmail.com, resulting in email@example.com, that we get a valid email address. Gmail uses email addresses to uniquely identify a Google account, which has access to many different services in addition to email, such as Google Photos, Google Maps, YouTube, and more. So gmail.com is not (by itself) an email address or email account.
- Gmail.com is not a program. It is, however, a website you can visit3 to access the email associated with your email account.
As you can see, “Gmail” means many things, depending on the context.
Of course, Microsoft makes things even more confusing.
Confusion #3: The many faces of Outlook
Outlook is not an email service. Outlook is not a website. There’s no such thing as an “Outlook” account. Outlook is a program that is part of Microsoft Office, which you run on your computer. Outlook — or more formally, Microsoft Outlook — is an email program you use to access email from almost any email service by downloading it to and managing it on your computer.
Outlook.com is a web-based email service. Outlook.com is a website you visit to access the email associated with your Microsoft account. Email addresses ending in @outlook.com are Microsoft accounts, provided by the Outlook.com email service.
The “.com” matters A LOT. Why? Because Outlook (without the .com) and Outlook.com are completely unrelated to one another — other than both being Microsoft products and both being called Outlook. You’ll note when I was discussing email programs above I was careful to include “(not Outlook.com)” as part of the description of Microsoft Outlook, since they are two different things. I now often refer to the program as “Microsoft Office Outlook” to further distinguish between the two.
Thanks, Microsoft. You’ve no idea what confusion you’ve created down here in the trenches.
So say you get a new computer. To get your email on the new machine, what do you need to move from one machine to another?
If you’re using an email program, you need to:
- Install the program on the new machine.
- Move your email messages and contact list from your old machine to your new.
- Configure the program to access your email account, which means telling it your email address and other configuration information provided by your email service.
- Start downloading any new email on the new machine, and stop downloading email on the old.
The only thing really “moved” is your collected email and contacts. Everything else is just configuration to properly access email from the new machine.
If you’re using web-based email, things are simpler.
- Open a browser on the new machine.
- Visit your email service’s website.
- Sign in.
There’s really nothing to move from one computer to another.
The original question was, “I want to change my email program from Hotmail to something else.”
By now, we know you’re not changing your email program; rather, you’re changing your email service — which means getting a new email account on the new service and then getting a new email address.
At a high level, changing email accounts means you’ll do this:
- Create a new email account with a new email service. This will give you a new email address.
- If you use a PC-based email program, configure it to use your new email account and address.
- If you use web-based email, use your browser to sign into your new email account.
- Tell all your friends, business relations, newsletter subscriptions, and anyone else who might care what your new email address is.
It’s really no surprise people get confused — there are several layers of complexity here, and many of the terms aren’t always used accurately.
Unfortunately, when it comes to computers — and particularly when seeking help for computer problems — terminology matters — a lot.