Cyberclinic: Can I get hold of my webmail without an internet connection?

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The Independent Online

While we give our blind, unquestioning loyalty to many things – from the wake-up radio station on our alarm clock to our preferred brand of washing powder – there's something about computers that's particularly polarising. There's Mac vs PC, there's Firefox vs Internet Explorer – and there's also those who champion webmail services like Yahoo!, Hotmail or GMail vs the deskbound dissenters wouldn't dream of giving up their copy of Outlook Express or Apple Mail.

The traditional advantage of webmail was its accessibility from any computer, while desktop mail had the huge storage capacity and the sleek interface. But these days, webmail services have more storage than you could ever need and, with the ability to drag and drop, set up folders and filters and fight spam, they're almost indistinguishable from an e-mail program.

But what about all the information we have stored in our webmail folders that we might need to retrieve at a moment's notice – often when we have no internet access? One solution is proposed by Phil Dempsey: "If you want the best of both worlds, it's possible to get an e-mail program such as Outlook to talk to most webmail services and download, store and read your messages. And then, when you're away, just log in via webmail – all your e-mail will still be sitting there." It's a good solution, but if you're with Yahoo! or Hotmail – sorry, Windows Live Hotmail – you'll have to pay for the privilege – £12 a year for Yahoo! MailPlus, £15 a year for Hotmail Plus.

A cheaper solution might already be in your pocket. As reader Tim Clarke points out, if you have a mobile phone, you've got internet access right there. Using built-in phone browsers can be a drag, but GMail has a very neat application for your phone that lets you search, read and reply to messages when you can't get to a computer (just visit from your phone's browser).

But the biggest strides ahead in solving this problem are being made by another Google innovation called Google Gears. After you've installed it, it sits in the background of your web browser and acts like a database for various services – so when you're offline it reads from the database, and when you go back online it synchronises with the service and lets you carry on as normal. It doesn't yet work with GMail, but it should do within the next couple of months.

As this kind of solution becomes more common, the dividing line between the web browser and computer desktop will become increasingly blurred – which, if you hate pointless computer-related arguments, can only be a good thing.

Diagnosis required

Next week's question comes from Jon Heeler:

"I never open spam e-mails, I never visit dodgy websites – but still it seems my PC has contracted a virus. Are cyber-criminals simply getting more cunning, or what?"

Any comments, and new questions for the Cyberclinic, should be emailed to