Walk through a library's Internet area and peek at what people are doing on those computer screens.
Chances are pretty good you'll see Yahoo Mail on many of them. Some others will be at HotMail. Sure, there also will be a few eBayers, Amazoners, Chatters and general surfers, but the free Yahoo Mail and HotMail sites occupy a big chunk of Internet attention.
It makes sense. E-mail is the single most-popular use of the Internet. And Yahoo Mail and HotMail are the best-known and most popular free e-mail sites.
Actually they're "Webmail" sites, a kind of e-mail. That is, you sign up with either service and get an e-mail address and a mailbox. This means the Internet has been told to watch for any messages sent to that address, and to route them to a small section of hard drive space, reserved for you, on the big server computers at Yahoo or Microsoft headquarters.
Whenever you want, from anywhere in the world, you can connect using any Internet-linked computer, running any Web browser program, to read your messages, reply to them and send your own.
Webmail is more portable than old-fashioned e-mail because you need only a Web browser to get it, not a specially configured e-mail "client" program such as Outlook Express or Eudora.
Webmail is portable in another way: It isn't linked to any particular Internet access service. When you quit AOL or MSN, you have to give up your aol.com or msn.com e-mail address. But sign up for a free Yahoo or Hotmail address and you can keep that address as you migrate from AOL to Earthlink to MSN to cable modem to any other access you like. The only other way to keep your address steady is to register your own domain, which costs about $20 to $30 a year.
I have a half-dozen e-mail addresses, set up to work with standard e-mail programs or as Webmail addresses. But I keep two Yahoo Mail addresses for their benefits. My dad has his own e-mail address at an Internet service provider. My mom gets online using the same access service but has a Yahoo Mail address. She thinks it odd that I have both traditional and Yahoo addresses. I started explaining to her the trade-offs between regular e-mail and Webmail. And that's when I realized the surprising number of options in Webmail services, which few subscribers put to use or even know about.
Yahoo, for example, lets you block messages from up to 100 senders. If you just can't seem to unsubscribe from some e-catalog, or get off the FYI list of some boor at work, you can use the Options, Block Addresses window to list people who are e-mail non grata to you. Then you'll never know they've been clicking Send with you in mind.
HotMail is designed to work with Outlook Express. When you're away from home, you can check your e-mail on a Web browser and when you're home you can use your Outlook Express to grab the messages from that same Hotmail inbox. Just choose Outlook's Tools, Accounts, Add, Mail commands and then enter your HotMail address and password.
There are drawbacks to Yahoo Mail and HotMail. Both are pushing more advertising toward their subscribers. Both attract a lot of junk e-mail "spam" (though both have "spam"filters to ease the pain of this). And the Yahoo and HotMail e-mail boxes are pretty small. They'll hold dozens of regular e-mails, but receiving one e-mail with a couple of attached digital photos can max them out, making all other incoming messages bounce until you download or delete those pictures. You can get more space to hold more mail, but for a fee.