Most people these days have several email accounts

Locked mailboxTypically, most people have one or more “proper” accounts and one or more accounts that are used for less important stuff and for situations where they have been compelled to give an email address but haven’t wanted to give their “proper” one (perhaps because of fears of getting “spammed”).

It can be rather tedious having to log onto several different webmail sites to check all these accounts separately – especially if it’s just on the off-chance that there’s something new and important to be read. One of the benefits of using an email “client” (as opposed to using webmail) is the ability to add all your email accounts to the same place so that you can check all accounts at the same time instead of having to log onto different webmail sites.

Gmail iconHowever, if you try to add your Gmail account or your Yahoo account to Outlook or Thunderbird then it probably won’t work (initially). What’s more, you don’t get any proper indication as to why it doesn’t work. Instead, you will get misleading error messages suggesting that either your username or your password is incorrect. You may not even discover the reason by looking for help on the email provider’s website. Perhaps I should clarify that “Outlook” in this context means the email program from Microsoft and not the webmail service called Outlook.com.

The reason it won’t work is almost certainly that your webmail provider thinks that the email program that you are using is “less secure” than using webmail and that it won’t allow the connection to be made until you explicitly instruct the webmail provider to connect your account to programs such as Outlook.

Yahoo Mail iconThe way that you do this is by opening up your webmail and looking in “Settings” (or “Options”) for a setting that says something to the effect of “allow less secure applications to access your email”. I know that this is the case for both Yahoo and Gmail and suspect that it may apply to other webmail setups. Below are instructions for changing the settings in Yahoo and Gmail. Hopefully, if you use a different webmail service, there is enough information here for Yahoo and Gmail for you to be able to find the equivalent setting in your own setup. After you have changed this setting, then go back to Outlook (or Thunderbird or whatever) and try again to set the account up there. It should then connect with no further bother.

In Yahoo, log into your webmail as normal and then:

  • Click on the cogwheel located at top right of your Yahoo webmail screen
  • Click on “Account Info”
  • Click on “Account Security” at the left of the screen
  • Jump through any security hoops that it sets up for you (such as making near impossible decisions about which squares on an image “include traffic signs”)
  • Go down to the last item on the screen (“Allow apps that use less secure sign in”) and slide the switch to the “on” position
  • Go back to Outlook (or Thundebird or whatever) and enter the account info again


In Gmail, log into your webmail in the normal way and then:

  • Click on the Settings cogwheel (near top right of screen)
  • Click on the “Settings” option
  • Click on the tab marked “Forwarding and POP/IMAP”
  • Under “IMAP access”, click the circle next to “Enable IMAP”
  • At the bottom of the list of options, click on “Save changes”
  • Go back to Outlook (or Thunderbird or whatever) and enter the account info again

I recently blogged that the computer market appears to be maturing in that there are fewer innovations in the hardware from year to year. All the bells and whistles that nerdy people used to add to their computers are now all built in and taken for granted. The hardware is still getting faster, but there are fewer new goodies to bolt on.

The software side is different. A shift is taking place in the way we do our computing. More and more of our data is being held for us “in the cloud” (by services such as Skydrive, Dropbox, Evernote). In a lot of cases that same data is also held on the hardware we are using, but we needn’t go into all that now.

Laptops in the cloudsThe huge advantage to storing data in the cloud this way is that it is accessible from many devices – even devices that use different operating systems and different versions of the programs and apps. I currently have Evernote and Dropbox available on my Windows 8 laptop, Windows 7 netbook, Macs, iPad, iPhone and Android phone. It’s all a far cry from the days when I had to remember to make data backups from my laptop and transfer them to the netbook before taking the netbook out with me.

All of this “data mobility” through internet access does have a few downsides, though:

  • My long-held opinion that our online data is not secure against prying eyes has now been well and truly shown to be “jaundiced realism” rather than “paranoia” (I am resisting the urge to use words such as “Told”, “You”, and “So”).
  • You are sometimes stuck if you don’t have an internet connection.
  • And, the point I’ve been trying to build up to, is that the very way we access, view, and interact with our data is constantly at the mercy of whoever is providing the service. I’m not suggesting they are unreliable or badly intentioned but they do have the very annoying habit of changing things without warning.

I think the most obvious way that this is apparent is not, in fact, services such as Evernote (that we access via programs or apps on our own computers and devices), but services where the data and the interface with it are both provided directly via a web browser.

The most obvious of these is our old friend webmail. How often have I heard the cry of anguish that Gmail, or Yahoo, or Hotmail, have changed the user interface again and now it’s impossible to find anything. This often happens without any warning at all and it can feel like an intrusion into our personal space. We get used to doing something in a particular way. Most people don’t want to consciously “engage” with Gmail: they just want to get at their mail without having to think about it or re-learn how to do it.

Bang on cue! When I opened Gmail today to grab a logo for this blog I was presented with this screen telling me it's all changed again.

Bang on cue! When I opened Gmail today to grab a logo for this blog I was presented with this screen telling me it’s all changed again.

Just occasionally I’ve been in the vicinity when clients have given vent to the frustration this can cause. Part of me sympathises with my client, of course, but every now and again I’ve tried to offer a different perspective (tactfully, I hope!):

  • The service suppliers get us to to agree to their terms and conditions before we can use the service. No-one ever reads those terms and conditions because they give us no choices and they are, anyway, utterly incomprehensible to human beings. You can be sure, though, that somewhere in those tems and conditions they have told us that they will make any changes they feel like at any time and that we can like it or lump it.
  • Computer software is still a relatively new, and rapidly changing, technology. Advances can only happen by having change. That may be a truism, but it doesn’t mean it’s not true! We just happen to live in a time of lots of change. Personally, I like that and, to an extent, earn my living from it. Frustration, re-learning, adapting – they’re all part of the change. Hopefully, we can also sometimes experience pleasure, delight, surprise, and even a sense of fun when engaging with this stuff.
  • The other thing I occasionally point out is that the only way we are paying for a lot of this stuff is in the form of giving away our personal data when we use the service. Most of the internet, including webmail, Dropbox, Skydrive, etc, is free at the point of use. That’s astonishing, if you think about it. If any of us could have imagined the internet forty years ago, I’m sure we wouldn’t have also imagined that it would be largely free (which is not to trivialise the cost of giving away our personal data: this is just the wrong blog post for that particular hobby-horse!).

Heraclitus (c 535-475bce), looking as if he's just lost his internet connection

Heraclitus (c 540-480bce), looking as if he’s just lost his internet connection

So, we engage more and more with the internet to store and retrieve our data, to communicate with friends, family, suppliers, manufacturers and Uncle Tom Cobbly. All of this communication happens via “software interfaces” – be those on Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Skydrive – or wherever. As the software becomes more powerful and more “feature rich” those interfaces are going to continue to change.

We’ve just got to live with it.

Apparently, it was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who first said “The only constant thing is change” – and that was two and a half thousand years ago, so you’d think we would have got used to the idea by now.

Is your Contacts List at the mercy of your webmail service?

Email "@" signs falling from the Cloud into a laptop

It’s well worth saving your Contacts information locally if it only exists in The Cloud.

“Webmail” is the method of accessing email that works via a browser (eg Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera). There is no “program” on your computer that is dedicated to dealing with your email. All of the necessary programming is provided via the web browser.

If you use webmail to send and receive emails then it’s possible that the only “contacts list” you have is intimately bound up with that email account. This contacts list (also known as an “address book”) may be just the email addresses of your correspondents, but it may also include postal addresses and many other items of contact information.

When you use webmail, the information that you are looking at (email content, contact information etc) is normally only stored on the servers of whoever is providing your service. Now, I know that there is an argument that says “So what? Microsoft/Gmail/AOL/Yahoo all know what they are doing and they will take better care of my data than I ever would. I never take backups“. Call me a control freak, but I would not be at all happy to think that 200-1000 email addresses might be at the mercy of an organisation over which I have absolutely no influence. And although you might be right that these large companies have better data backup procedures than you do, that does not mean that they are entirely reliable.

Here are two ways in which computer clients of mine have lost their contact information:

  • Last summer a client of mine lost control of his Gmail account when it was hacked by someone correctly guessing his password – see this blog on Gmail Passwords for the full story.
  • Very recently a (different) client had problems with his Hotmail account. Microsoft told him that there appeared to have been attempts to hack into his account and they made him jump through all kinds of hoops to get it back. He was luckier than the Gmail client in that he did get back into his account, but all his contact information has disappeared.

Despite these occasional problems, there are definitely arguments in favour of using webmail, so can you do something to reduce this vulnerability? Yes, you can. If you use any of the main webmail services (eg AOL, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo) then you have the ability to “export” your contacts list. It would be too tedious to describe the process for each webmail client (ie each webmail service), but the general advice is to click wherever necessary to get your contacts list in front of you and then look for an option that includes the magic word “export”. This may be a sub-option of an option called “manage contacts” or something like that. See the illustration for an example from a Yahoo webmail account.

Webmail Data Export Options

These are the options for exporting Contacts information from Yahoo webmail. The circled option is the one to go for.

You will probably be offered a selection of different formats in which the exported data can be saved, but we needn’t get too distracted by that. If it’s offered, take the “csv” option (which means “comma separated values”). If there’s no “csv” option apparent then take another option such as “Outlook” or “Thunderbird”. The main thing here is that we are saving a copy of your data onto your own computer so that it could be made available in the case of an emergency. Even if it’s in the wrong format a bit of “data massage” will probably put it to rights and you’ll certainly be better off than if you had no local copy at all.

When you’ve completed the process you will have a file on your computer that might be called something like “contacts.csv”. This is a local backup of your contacts data. It can be useful in several ways:

  • To restore contact data back into an existing account.
  • To transfer the data into a new account from the same webmail service.
  • To transfer the data to a completely different account with a different webmail service.

If you do use webmail and decide to spend a little time doing something “techie” and well worthwhile, then have a go at this.

© 2011-2018 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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