There's little question that Web-based email has captured a major portion of the user base. The conveniences of webmail -- all your messages in one place, few or no practical limits on storage, access from almost any client device -- make it all the more appealing to generations of users for whom client apps like Outlook are clunky relics.
Trouble is, hard numbers can be tough to come by. Google, for instance, claims that as of June 2012 Gmail alone had some 425 million users, although analytics firm ComScore gave an estimate of 289 million for May 2012. The other two major contenders -- Yahoo Mail and Hotmail (now Outlook.com) -- were in about the same ballpark, according to ComScore, with 298 million and 325 million users, respectively.
The picture is further complicated by other issues, such as how many users have accounts on more than one service, how many accounts are abandoned, how reporting on mobile versus desktop is skewed, and so on.
Fuzzy as the hard numbers might be, any service type with a user base in the hundreds of millions is worth keeping fresh. Over the past year, each of the three largest webmail providers has made major changes to its service.
In the case of Gmail, those changes have been part of the rolling tweaks Google makes throughout its family of services. On the other hand, Microsoft has pushed through a major rebrand and relaunch, turning its well-known Hotmail email service into Outlook.com, with an entirely new interface and overhauled feature set. Yahoo has also been attempting to reinvent itself, giving its service a new look and some new features.
In this roundup, I look at what's changed for each email service during the past year -- both cosmetically and functionally -- and the ways each implements commonly used features: mail organization and searching, POP/IMAP access, handling of attachments and the mobile experience (including apps).
How to switch email accounts
One of the biggest problems with using a webmail account is leaving it and/or going to another. None of the accounts profiled in this piece have an obvious way to export your email and your contacts, and move them to another service. That doesn't make it impossible, though.
Gmail lets you import email from another provider; you can also have messages forwarded from the provider to your Gmail account for up to 30 days. Most popular mail services are supported, and I was even able to set up a link from my own vanity email address after manually specifying the needed POP3 login information. If your provider isn't one of those that Gmail imports from, Google has a tool it calls the Mail Fetcher, which lets you download messages from up to five accounts.
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