Email: the most common and misunderstood technology

Email is an essential tool for everyone.

The only communication used as much as email are text messages. It is in the center of everything we do. With as much as it is used, few people know how it works in the background.

This is going to change for you.

Part of a screenshot showing the email app on an iPhone. There is a badge on the icon showing 2 unread messages.

Before 1972 email existed but not in today’s iteration.

It was possible to send messages between accounts on the same machine. Then a man named Ray Tomlinson came up with the idea to add an @ symbol to tell the computer where to send the message. This idea turned into what you know now.

The necessities

There’s 3 different servers needed to send email.

  • SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol)
  • IMAP/POP3 server (Post Office Protocol 3)
  • Email Client

Let’s dig into each one.


The SMTP server sends the message.

When you hit send the SMTP server forwards it to another SMTP server. The messages process so you can read the them. Then the messages are stored on the IMAP/POP server.

Without the SMTP server, emails wouldn’t be able to transfer from person to person.

Accessing email

IMAP and POP3 are both servers to access your email with a client.

The way they work is a bit different.


IMAP offers 2-way syncing of your messages from the server.

This means when you read a message on any device it shows as read on the server. Every device you use show it as read. Deleting the mail removes it everywhere. IMAP allows you to create separate folders and move between the folders.

IMAP has become the standard for accessing personal accounts.


POP3 does a 1-way sync.

It forwards the messages to devices you setup to pull the mail. Changes to the inbox happen on the one device. It doesn’t sync back to the mail server.

Without these servers, you wouldn’t be able to read your mail.

The email client

The client is what allows you to change the mail on the server.

You’ll know the client as the mail app on your iPhone, Microsoft Outlook, or the Gmail website. An email client is any application allowing you to see your mail. The client is what allows you to flag, mark an message as read, or delete it.

A client can do anything to email on the server a developer can dream up.

Email is on the of the simplest technologies and hasn’t changed much over the years.

It’s lacking features to be up to today’s standards.

Email’s simplicity keeps it going.

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