E-mail is a convenient means to send messages over a network. It is similar to sending messages over the network first organized by Benjamin Franklin - the U.S. Postal Service. You have to make arrangements with some particular post office to rent a box for mail coming to you but you can send mail to any box on the network by giving it to a postmaster at any post office.
The big network, the internet, has made it very easy for folks on the road to keep in touch with folks back home. The big advantage of the internet is that you do not have to physically visit your post office to get your mail. With modern telecommunications, you can get your mail from nearly anywhere. To use e-mail you will need two things. First is to set up a mail box and second is to make arrangements to use the highway to get to that mail box.
The first requirement for e-mail is to arrange with a service provider who will let you use his outgoing mail service and will provide storage and address (a mailbox) for your incoming mail. This is your home post office. There are some firms that will provide these services for no cost other than your exposure to their advertising. These services are also a standard part of most internet access agreements.
To get internet access you will need to find a computer that is connected to the internet and make arrangements with that computer's owner for you to use it. There are many ways to do this. Libraries and some other government institutions may have terminals connected to the internet available for free use. Internet cafes may have terminals you can rent. Or you can subscribe to a service that allows you to use your computer as a terminal to their system connected by telephone, satellite, or other means.
It used to be that you could use just about anybody's e-mail sending server. Due to misuse, this freedom has been reduced. Now you are more likely to find that an e-mail sending server will require you to have a mailbox at their office or to perform some sort of verification of your identify.
There are two ways to manage e-mail messages. One, called IMAP, leaves the mail at the post office and uses a desk at the post office to review the mail. The other is called POP and just pulls all the mail from the post office mail box to your own computer where you can review it at home.
An e-mail client is a program that will store the keys to your mailbox, go fetch any mail, display it, allow you to manage its storage and disposal, and provide the means for you to create message that it will pass along to the postmaster. Most e-mail clients can handle mail using either the IMAP or POP methods. Examples of e-mail client software are Microsoft Outlook, and Netscape Messenger.
Another way to access mail, which is particularly convenient if your internet access is on the road of with another person's computer, is to use a web service. The e-mail client for this service is like having an attendant at the post office. All you need is a web browser such as Microsoft Explorer or Netscape Navigator and the URL (internet address) of the attendant. Web Mail uses the IMAP method to handle mail as all of the messages are kept at the post office.
Every computer attached to the internet has an address. This address is one big number. If you use an internet service provider to connect to the internet via telephone or cable, you are provided a temporary address number when you 'log in' by attaching to your service provider's (ISP) computer and providing proper identification. To make things easier for humans, the permanently attached computers, such as those at your ISP are given a name. There are special computers called domain name servers that have dictionaries to match address numbers to names that are used automatically by your internet software. The addresses of these domain name servers are either obtained automatically when you log in to your ISP or they may be typed into a page of settings on your computer along with other important internet connection information.
Computer names are categorized to facilitate looking up the address. Each name is composed of two or more parts separated by a dot with the broadest category as the rightmost part. The broadest category is usually 'com' or 'org' or 'edu' but may be a country identifier. A name like washoe.co.nv.us is a typical multi part name used in by many local specific (such as local government) entities.
User names, which is how your mailbox is identified, are always associated with one particular named computer. The complete user name will be an assigned id separated from the computer name with the '@' character. There can be a whole lot of users set up on a particular machine. Many ISP's provide each subscriber the option of setting up several user id's to allow that subscriber to have separate mailboxes for family members. If you see the '@' in an address before the computer name, you know it is an e-mail address.
File names are most often used for web pages. When you view a web page, you are looking at a file on the host computer. These are often categorized and grouped into folders like they are on your home PC. A URL or Uniform Resource Locator indicates the type of service needed to get the file, the machine name, a '/' and then the file on the computer. Anytime you see a '/' in an address after the computer name, you know it is a file name.
An e-mail message contains only simple text such as you can type from your keyboard without using the 'CTRL' or ALT keys. Anything other than simple text has to be encoded in a simple text format. HTML used for web pages is one means to encode bold face and other attributes but an e-mail client that doesn't understand HTML will show all of the markup commands rather than the desired attributes.
Each message has a header, a body, and a signature. The header stores information about the message and how it gets from the sender to the recipient. The signature is noted by a line containing only two dashes followed by a space. Most e-mail clients will recognize the structure of a message in order to provide a pleasing presentation to the reader.
While it is good practice to keep e-mail messages short, it may be necessary or convenient to send a picture or a word processor document with the message. These are encoded to a plain text form and marked by what kind of object they happen to be and then 'attached' to the e-mail message. The recipient can then separate them from .the rest of the message and recreate the original file. If the e-mail client being used knows about a program to handle the type of the attachment, it may automatically hand off the attachment so it can be viewed without much hassle.
This automatic handling of attachments is what may lead to trouble. If the attachment is really a program that can do things with your computer you don't want it to do, then it is called malicious software. This sort of attachment can destroy your data, send embarrassing messages to your friends, or use up resources in a way that slows things down and costs money.
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