Ask Leo! #640 – What are the Differences Between an Email Account, Address, Program, and Service?

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


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.

Email service

An email service is something like, 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.

An 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 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:


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 (, 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 "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:\\ or https:\\, 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 "", for example, an email service? An account? An address? A program?

  • 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.
  • is not enough to identify an email account or address. It's not until we add a name – like askleoexample – to, resulting in, 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.
  • 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. is an email service. is a website you visit to access the email associated with your Microsoft account. Email addresses that end in are Microsoft accounts, provided by the email service.

The ".com" matters A LOT. Why? Because Outlook and 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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Posted: February 21, 2017 in: 2017
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