Back in the 90s, gadget makers had a phrase for consultants and trainers who drove around the country, or flew around the world, doing their work – “road warriors”. [Tom Peters had another phrase – “seagull consultants”.] Back then, intrnational standards and global solutions were only just emerging and, if you asked anyone about ‘cloud computing’ they’d probably think you’d got your (only just invented) laptop out on an aeroplane. All kinds of gizmos were invented to allow you to hook up to foreign telephone systems to access fledgling email systems.
In the late 90s and early 00s, the bits of plastic gave way to software based solutions, but many of these too were a little Heath Robinson-esque and quite expensive to boot. The legacy of this persists today with the extortionate rates that mobile phone operators charge for roaming – especially when you are simply accessing your own network through one owned by the same operator in a different country.
Back then the warrior on the road, often had to resort to an internet cafe, and to use an unbelievably slow and clunky web-mail site to get at their messages.
Most of you reading this are probably saying; “So what?” Well in the last two weeks, I’ve been in conversation with three travelling consultants who were struggling to keep going with their old style systems and hadn’t realised that there’s a much easier approach almost instantly available to them.
THIS IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE – so, if you’re still a little bemused as to why I’m writing this, I’d just close the message and go on to another one! I do appreciate that this is a little… basic. I have also tried to keep it simple and may have blurred a couple of definitions – thanks for noticing, but don’t feel you need to discuss them here!
So… for the rest of us:
You already have an email service provider – some will be the standard service provided by most internet service providers, ISPs (eg BT Connect), others are generic (eg Demon), but most are specific to a domain name that you (or your institution) have registered (eg grahamwilson.org). (These personal domains are so inexpensive (c£6 per year) that anyone can have one. ) Some people don’t realise that all of these can be made to work with any system – you don’t have to stick with the one that was installed on your laptop, or was described in the set-up of your wifi. Similarly, just because your ISP gave you an email address you don’t need to use it!
The tool that an increasing number of people prefer, regardless of where or how they are accessing their email, IS a webmail provider, but it’s one that’s so well developed that it has become the ’email client’ of choice for many, many people. An ’email client’ is the generic term used to describe software programs that allow you to access, read, store, compose and send, emails. Previously popular examples were Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird. These were entirely based on your computer.
The tool that people tend to prefer these days is provided by Google. With the exception of a few trouble-spots around the world, Google (www.google.com) is accessible almost everywhere. Gmail does everything that Outlook or Thunderbird do – it just does them all a little better.
You don’t HAVE to use their browser (Google Chrome) though there may be a few techie benefits from doing so. Thus, if you prefer Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE), Mozilla’s Firefox or whatever, that’s fine too.
To get started, you just go to the Google site – yes, the one that you visit every day to do searches. Look at the black strip at the top and you’ll see one of the options is Gmail. Go there and sign up for a personal email account. PLEASE bear in mind my comments in previous posts about selecting a professional sounding email address – it isn’t critical here, as no-one will necessarily see the gmail email address, but it still makes sense.
Unlike other webmail services, Gmail is available both online and offline. Your messages are held centrally, but they synchronise with copies on any other machine that you wish to use. Once you are up and running, email can be synchronised between the two so you need never be without anything. I have all of mine sychnronised with my laptop, 12 month’s worth on my Android tablet, and the last 300 on my smartphone.
Messages with attachments can be stored within the Gmail system, so you don’t need to download them all to a folder structure on your machine. What’s more, the Gmail storage system is like all others in allowing you to store messages in folders, but it also allows you to attach simple ‘tags’ to them – this makes it easy to find messages on the same topic that have been filed across many different folders. Yes, there’s a learning curve, but the flexibility of this online, cloud-based, email system is profoundly better than anything else that you’ll have encountered.
Because Gmail has become so endemic, it is available on most ‘platforms’ – thus you can access it through Windows (whatever version), the iOS used by IPads etc, Android – the standard for smartphones and tablet computers, and Linux – the operating system that’s very popular with institutions. You simply access your Gmail from ANY device and it will synchronise as much information as you wish among them – so you can work on ‘that’ report using any device.
Nowadays, most people already have a couple of email addresses – in some cases, many – usually one personal and one for work. The beauty of the Gmail interface, is that you can attach several different email accounts (reflected in different email addresses) to the one system. When Google retrieves the messages from each account, by default it puts them all in the same ‘inbox’ but it tags (labels) them so that they are easy to find and distinguish. You can tell it if you’d like to have them go in different folders.
You simply set each account up in exactly the same way that you would have with Outlook in the past, using POP3 settings to do so. The POP3 settings are usually easy to find somewhere on the site of any email provider and they consist of the username, password, outgoing email server and incoming email server. (Gmail comes with a tool to find these automatically for many service providers.)
Gmail uses the POP3 settings to contact your original email service provider(s) to see if there are any new messages waiting for you, and then copies these to the Gmail system. It does this very frequently so there’s rarely any delay in getting new ones. Thunderbird and Outlook check in the same way, though they tend to do so every 15 minutes by default.
One of the options for most email clients, such as Gmail, is whether to keep your emails in their original inbox once you have transferred them. In the past, working with something like Outlook on your own laptop, you might have not deleted them for safety in case there was a glitch in the transfer. The risks are probably less with Gmail, but I’ve got mine set to delete everything after 30 days – that way there’s a safety margin without building up a huge store that you’ll never access.
Once they are linked you can ‘compose’ messages in Gmail and then send them from any of your accounts. You can set up different default fonts, signatures, etc for each.
So, in a nutshell:
- Register for a Gmail account
- Set up your existing accounts through the Gmail interface using POP3
Once it’s up and running, you can import your existing address book(s) to Google Contacts, and you can import your existing emails from Outlook or Thunderbird to Gmail. Or you can breath lightly at having a new greenfield structire and can redesign your filing system!
I realise that this isn’t the usual kind of blog entry, but I hope it’ll help one or two of you.