four of the hidden innovations that made free webmail possible

Full inboxes in an office.

Share This Post

You know webmail. You love webmail. The ability to access the full functionality of your inbox from a web browser is unrivaled — and helps explain why email endures despite generations of messaging tools (ICQ, AIM, Skype) coming in and out of favor.

Webmail gives you the best of all worlds: combining spontaneity with asynchronicity. That’s why it’s a core function within illumy.

Here, we dive into the hidden history of email on web servers with four key innovations that make webmail possible.


SMTP is short for Simple Message Transfer Protocol: an acronym that more or less sums up what it does. It’s a universal language used by email servers and clients to send and deliver messages (but not receive them).

Like any other language, SMTP has basic building blocks. The protocol’s essential elements are commands:

HELO: For sharing the sender’s server and domain name

MAIL FROM: For sharing the sender’s email address

RCPT: For identifying the recipient

VRFY: For requesting verification that the recipient address exists on the mail server

DATA: For asking the server for permission to send the content of the email

QUIT: For closing the server-client connection

SMTP was introduced in 1982, only about a decade after email was first rolled out. While the protocol has undergone some changes since the Eighties, the commands themselves have remained the same (with one exception: HELO is now EHLO in the newer ESMTP standard).

That first iteration of SMTP was extremely basic, offering support for only plain-text emails in English with a strict character limit. Yet its very simplicity helps to explain why it’s still in use. An email sender using SMTP needs just a few “ingredients” — namely a username, password, port, and host — to communicate with mail servers.


If SMTP is for sending email, IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) is for receiving it.

The IMAP standard first appeared back in 1988 and went through a few iterations before reaching its current standard, IMAP4, in 1995.

Because it allows for remote inbox access, IMAP can be thought of as an early version of cloud computing. Beginning with IMAP2, the protocol allowed users to create, edit, and delete email messages stored on a mail server.

IMAP4 introduced even more server-side features, like the ability to create mailbox folders, flags for read and unread status, and search functionality.

Today, relying on IMAP (instead of POP, or Post Office Protocol) remains one of the best practices if you’re using mail apps or desktop email clients. POP downloads all of your emails onto your local device, but with IMAP access, only a copy of the mails get downloaded. The originals continue to exist on the email server.

For this reason, email managed with IMAP support is easily accessible over the web no matter where in the world you might be. That makes IMAP a true precursor to available-from-anywhere email providers like illumy.


SMTP provides a common language for email clients and servers to communicate. But it’s extremely simple and limited in its functionality.

How limited? SMTP only permits ASCII text (i.e., plain text) with a line length of 1000 characters.

MIME, for Multipurpose Internet Message Extensions, was created in 1992 to add more “oomph” to SMTP and transform email into a multimedia experience.

MIME provides a simple way to encode content like rich text, images, video, and audio files, utilizing headers within the email to distinguish between file types. It’s the presence of these headers that distinguishes MIME from plain old SMTP email.

The extensions don’t just allow for different media types to be inserted. They also allow email to support attachments — things like documents, PDFs, or just about any other kind of file.

This attachment functionality helped make email massively more valuable for consumers, small businesses, and commercial use. Thanks to MIME, email became more than a tool for sending messages back and forth. It also allowed content to be sent back and forth: allowing people to share files and enjoy richer conversations with more context.


Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML, is the very foundation of the internet. Invented by computing pioneer Tim Berners-Lee in 1990, HTML’s initial vision was to connect academic and government web pages via links.

With CSS and JavaScript added on to provide page styling and interactive elements, respectively, HTML allowed web designers to create attractive and useful websites.

Nowhere was this more true than in the earliest free webmail sites, like Hotmail. Originally, “Hotmail” was styled HoTMaiL — because it was written in HTML.

That may sound corny to a 2023 reader, but when Hotmail was launched in 1996, the internet was still somewhat niche (and the concept of email on a web interface totally novel). The company’s timing couldn’t have been better, though. That year, there were just 45 million internet users worldwide; four years later, there were 400 million.

Hotmail and its competitor Rocketmail were poised to capitalize on this incredible growth as the first free, ad-supported internet email services. Microsoft and Yahoo, recognizing the value inherent to webmail, acquired Hotmail and Rocketmail, respectively, in 1997.

These acquisitions didn’t just set the stage for Microsoft Outlook, Yahoo! Mail, and competing professional services like AOL Mail. By offering a testbed for emergent web technologies, they also helped make Microsoft and Yahoo into internet giants.

“[Hotmail] was a sort of a bottomless wealth of information in terms of what to do and not to do … from the minute issues of response time on a login all the way to how you’d handle large data transfers,” former Microsoft executive Marco DeMello told Ars Technica.

Here at illumy, we’re taking the same approach — integrating decades of email learnings into something completely new. On illumy, you’ll be able to switch seamlessly between email messages and IMs within the same conversation (or even add new members to the thread).

And, like the best free email accounts from the Nineties, illumy’s email plans will be completely free. There will also be a paid plan with more storage space and other premium features.

Sound cool? Enter your email address into the signup field below this post to get notified when illumy’s new features go live — and secure one of the earliest illumy email addresses.

Photo by the blowup on Unsplash.

More To Explore

Congrats! You're now on our early access list.

We’ll send you an email when it’s your turn to sign up.

Calling Rates for

(+ )
i1 plan i2 plan i3 plan
[sc name="popup_total_minutes"][/sc]/min
i1 plan i2 plan i3 plan
illumy to illumy calling unlimited calling included unlimited calling included unlimited calling included
Landline n/a
Mobile n/a
Premium n/a
Details: Calls are rounded up to the nearest minute. A fair usage policy applies to unlimited calling capabilities. Some premium, special rate, or geographic numbers are not included. Restrictions apply.