It's difficult to imagine a world without email - what did we do all those years ago? Email is everywhere, both as desktop applications such as Outlook or Lotus Notes, or in the format of free webmail.
In this feature, we will be looking at the three biggest players in the free webmail world: Google's Gmail, Microsoft's Hotmail and Yahoo's Yahoo Mail. Which is best?
Hotmail offers 250MB of free email storage (although there is a 10MB attachment limit) for users in 24 countries, including the UK. There are some 260 million Hotmail users in the world today.
Since June 2006, Hotmail users can send instant messages from within Hotmail using the integrated Web Messenger function, without having to be signed in to Windows Live Messenger or even have the program installed at all.
Users can also access integrated MSN services such as Calendar and Contacts (the latter being shared with Windows Live Messenger) from the Hotmail homepage. In December 2004, Microsoft started its new blogging service, MSN Spaces , and integrated it with Windows Live Messenger and Hotmail.
Yahoo Mail has been around since 1997, and is steadily improving. A significantly different and advanced version, Yahoo Mail Beta , is currently being developed and is set to replace the current version of Yahoo Mail when completed. It is currently in public beta version.
The new version of Yahoo Mail is designed to mimic a desktop email client. Among its features are tabbed emails, RSS feeds, drag-and-drop capabilities, advanced keyboard shortcuts, advanced search, integration with Yahoo Calendar and Messenger , and address auto-complete.
Basic Yahoo Mail account holders get 1GB of storage whilst premium users get 2GB. In total, Yahoo's webmail service has some 220 million users.
Yahoo Mail's spam protection is excellent, although now and again a spate of spam emails manages to slip through its filter. Yahoo Mail is very intuitive, and probably the most user-friendly of the three, though it doesn't features as many Web 2.0 features as Gmail.
Launched in 2004, Google's Gmail is the newest kid on the block, although it's still technically in beta version. It is very easy to use and has a number of 'hidden' features that are very clever. The list of tasty feature goodies continues to grow regularly, although the slick Google look stays the same. It links through to other Google services such as Calendar and Google Talk .
A nifty feature is the new notification feature. In the case of emails sent to a number of recipients, it lets you know if someone else has already replied to the message you are reading or writing a reply to. Click on 'update conversation' to see other people's replies. Also, Google has finally realised that reply buttons should be located at the top and at the bottom of an email and now features both.
There's Gmail Mobile , too. The interface looks like Gmail and stays synchronised with your Gmail account whether on phone or computer.
Google wouldn't comment on the number of users that Gmail has, but estimates point towards the five million mark.
So who wins?
In our view, Google offers most in terms of features and ease of use. Yahoo Mail is the fastest and most improved. Hotmail may be the most established of the three but unless they sort out their spam problems we will look elsewhere for our web-based email.
We'd love to hear your views - do you use webmail, and if so, which service(s)? Which webmail do you consider the best, and why?