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What are the Differences Between an Email Account, Address, Program, and Service?

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I want to change my email program from Hotmail to something else. How to do?

I’m going to use this as an opportunity to clear up a piece of confusion I see all the time. A lot of folks might not believe me when I say this, but the confusion is extremely common. (And Microsoft isn’t helping any, as we’ll also see.)

In short: Hotmail is not an email program.

An email program is not at all the same thing as an email service, or an email account, or even an email address.

Time for some definitions.

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Email service

An email service is something like Outlook.com, Yahoo! Mail, Gmail, or perhaps the email services provided by your ISP, domain registrar, school, or place of employment. The “service” they provide are the servers and software that do two things:

  • 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 building a metaphor, think of an email service as an apartment building in which you live.

Email services determine how you access your email. There are two approaches:

  • A website that you visit in your web browser.
  • Downloading your email to your computer.

Note that these are two different things. An email service can choose to provide either or both. Most of the popular services now support both.

To build on the apartment building metaphor, it’s as if your apartment building has two options for you to get your physical mail: you can visit the mailroom yourself anytime you like, or you can have the mail delivered to your apartment on-demand, whenever you request it.

Email account

An email account is something you establish with an email service. In most cases, your email account is the inbox or folders provided by the service.

EmailAn account is often uniquely identified by a single email address, which I’ll define in a moment, but that is not always the case. Some email services let you have multiple different email addresses that all deliver to the same email account/inbox, such as Outlook.com aliases.

Many services use the email address you’ve been assigned to uniquely identify your account. A different email address is usually, then, a completely different account.

Other services use some other kind of log-in ID to be that of your account, different than your actual email address.

Think of an email account as the apartment you rent in the apartment building and in which you and your family lives.

Email address

An email address uniquely identifies both the email service you are using, and your mailbox as provided by that service. When email is sent to your email address, it’s collected by your email service and placed in an inbox, which you access through your email account.

Email addresses are always of the form:

name@domain

The domain part of an email address – the part after the “@” – is the only part used to route email to your service. Either the domain obviously identifies the service (outlook.com, gmail.com and so on), or additional information is used to identify the mail server assigned to handle email for that domain. While travelling between sender and recipient, the name part – the part before the “@” – is completely ignored until it arrives at the email service that handles that account.

After the email arrives at the email service’s servers, the email name is examined to see which account should receive the mail. The mail is then placed in that account’s inbox, or other account-related folder.

In our apartment building, your email address is like the apartment number and street address used to get you your physical mail. The street address (like the domain name) gets the mail to your building. Then, in the mail room, it’s your apartment number (like an email name) that tells the mail clerk into which box (account) to place the message. If you have more than one address that delivers to the same apartment (such as an outlook.com “alias”), the clerk knows to put that message in the same box.

Email program

As soon as you say “program”, you’re talking about computer software. An email program is the software that you run on your computer to access your email. Examples include Microsoft Office Outlook, Thunderbird, and many others.

An email program must be configured with your email account information in order to access your email. That includes your email address, password, and account information as provided by your email service.

The key point here is that when you use an email program, you are downloading or copying email to your computer in order to view it.

When you visit an email website, such as https:\\gmail.com or https:\\outlook.com, you’re not using an email program. You’re using your general-purpose web browser to visit a website where your email is displayed to you. The email remains on the service’s servers.

An email program is like the person you hire to run and get your email from the mailroom and bring it to your apartment. Using your web browser is like going down to the mailroom yourself, and leaving all of your mail in the mailroom, to boot.

Confusion #1: it’s a floor wax and a dessert topping1

So, is “gmail.com”, for example, an email service? An account? An address? A program?

  • Gmail.com is the 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 being synonymous with Google Mail. Thus, yes, we do 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 askleoexample@gmail.com, that we get a valid email address. Gmail uses that email address 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.
  • Gmail.com is not a program. It is, however, a website you can visit to access the email associated with your email account.

As you can see, “Gmail” is many things, and exact context matters.

Of course, Microsoft makes things even more confusing.

Confusion #2: 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 you run on your PC that is part of Microsoft Office. Outlook – or more formally, Microsoft Outlook – is an email program that allows you to access email from almost any email service by downloading it to and managing it on your computer.

Outlook.com is an email service. Outlook.com is a website you visit to access the email associated with your Microsoft account. Email addresses that end in @outlook.com are Microsoft accounts, provided by the Outlook.com email service.

The “.com” matters A LOT. Why? Because Outlook and Outlook.com are completely unrelated to one another. Other than both being Microsoft products…  and both being called Outlook.

Thanks, Microsoft. You’ve no idea what confusion you’ve created down here in the trenches.

Moving machines

So just what is it that you move when you move email from one machine to another?

If you’re using an actual PC email program, you need to:

  • Install that program on the machine you’re moving to.
  • Move your email messages and contact list from your old machine.
  • Configure that program to access your email account, which typically means telling the program your account information, email address, and other 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 installation and configuration to properly access email from the new machine.

If you’re using web-based email, conceptually things are much simpler:

  • Open a web browser on the new machine.
  • Visit your email service’s web site.
  • Log in.

There’s really nothing to move from one computer to another.

Moving accounts

The original question was changing 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 an account on a 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’re using a PC-based email program, configure it to use your new email account and address.
  • If you’re using a web-based email service, just log in to it using your browser to access 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 that people get confused – there are several layers of complexity here, and many terms aren’t always as specific as we might want them to be.

Unfortunately, when it comes to computers, and particularly when seeking help for computer problems, terminology matters – a lot.

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Footnotes & references

1: Kids, ask your parents. Smile

13 comments on “What are the Differences Between an Email Account, Address, Program, and Service?”

  1. Hi Leo – regarding Outlook – it gets worse! Not only is there a difference between Outlook.com and Outlook (as you have clearly explained, for which many thanks!) but I have just been battling through the difference between Microsoft Outlook – the App, and Microsoft Outlook – “on your desktop” as the guy on the helpline called it. Surely the App sits on my desktop I thought? Well maybe, but in order to switch my stored emails from the soon-to-be-defunct Windows Live Mail 2012 (which I have known and loved for ages) I needed to access the version of Outlook in my Office 365 subscription, because you can’t import stored emails into the Outlook App (apparently).

    After a lot of hassle I have succeeded (it fouled up my webmail so I received no emails for 3 days, which meant getting their engineers involved, then when that was fixed Outlook wouldn’t open at all – panic – but a reboot sorted it out.)

    As you say – thanks a lot Microsoft!!!! (I know, I know, I should have followed your advice and switched to Thunderbird, but it didn’t seem to offer all the features I thought I needed).

  2. Hi Leo
    An interesting and useful article. Is there anything further you can say about keeping historical emails associated with your old account? I have an old archive from a previous email account in my Thunderbird files and backed up of course – but are there any other options?

  3. Re moving accounts at the behest of your ISP
    Verizon moved some email accounts from Yahoo to AOL. They provided an ‘easy way to accomplish the transfer’ online form, that transferred all your Yahoo mail to AOL.
    I got only some of my emails and once I clicked in I was forever shut out of my Yahoo account.
    What you need to do if this happens to you:
    -While you still have access to your old account, setup email forwarding to another email account; your ISP will probably not think to do this for you. In my case I still continue getting emails on my Yahoo account but can’t get in to even see who these are from. Had I simply known to setup forwarding any emails that came to my old Yahoo address would go to my new account.
    -Before you click to move your email, go into your ‘sent’ folder and move those emails to your folders where you keep your other emails. Your ISP may not have thought to include emails in your ‘sent’ folder in its transfer program.

  4. Excellent explanation of the email complex, but I still have a question. When I try to use a Microsoft email alias to hide my main email address it does not work. When I send an email using and alias it reports the email as having come from my main address. What’s the point in having an alias?

  5. And … it gets even worser. Worsener? 🙂 Microsoft, in some instances, allows *non*-Microsoft email addresses to be used as a sign-in name for one’s *Microsoft* account. As an example, an email address like “name@yahoo.com” could be used to sign-into Outlook.com.

    So, “name@yahoo.com” may be what one uses to login to the Yahoo email service *and* is what one may use to login to one’s Microsoft account. And please keep the passwords to those accounts separate; they are not related!

    As I tell my listeners, when one establishes a new account with any service, WRITE IT DOWN SOMEWHERE! (yes, I shout.) no way can one remember all the services, accounts, names, passwords, secret questions, etc. without recording them somewhere. How to keep those records is a subject for another askleo article.

    • Also true for Google – I believe you can have a non-Gmail address as a Google account.

      Keeping all that information, including passwords, is what I use LastPass for. I discourage writing down as a) it’s a single copy that can be lost, b) it’s easily stolen.

  6. Very interesting article on what is an email address, acct. etc. However, I have always been under the impression that the domain name of your provider along with your name gave you a ‘legitimate’ email address. Some banking institutions will only accept ‘legitimate’ email addresses, rather than hotmail, yahoo etc.

    A few years ago, my ISP made a name change to better reflect their place in the game. However, some of the ‘old’ customers were allowed to grandfather their old email addresses and keep them, rather than having to notify umpteen different friends, services etc of the change. I have lately, on a couple of occasions, been denied the old email address when joining something or other, yet they would take what is essentially my new address but I don’t use it. As soon as I provide that, things progress just fine. Why would this happen?

    • Hotmail had a terrible reputation for a long time, and perhaps that’s why you heard the idea of a legitimate email address. But in fact, any email address is legitimate. I would be surprised if any banks still have that rule because people have moved away from using their ISP emails (because they keep changing) and very few people have their own domains.

      If your old ISP email is being rejected then it must be because they are not keeping their old listed properly. It could be on a blacklist of some sort. There are so many possibilities that coming up with any answers is simply guessing.

  7. I am having a terrible time with the Outlook on Windows 10. I can not find out how to access my address book nor can I find a place to enter new emails to my address book, or even to save an email address that I receive mail from, to save to my address book? ? ? Also I was saving emails from windows 10 to my specific folders set up on windows 7.. Low and behold, they did not stick in the folders. So I have lost a lot of important mail , befor I realized what was happening. I am so frustrated, I just don’t know where to start to fix my stuff.. Do you have any suggestions ? ? ? I’m about ready to dump my P C and look for an apple. Would I be better off / ? ? Please help …

  8. my email address is related to my business website. This is my email address ( I’ve changed it a tiny bit for privacy) john@{somebizdomain}.com
    I find it far easier to navigate, compose & format text, everything about bit ( to me) is far batter than gmail. hotmail etc. Gmail is a visual mess & not user friendly. Having said that how would you classify my email john@{somebizdomain}.com Is their a formal name for this type of emai? thanks John

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