Q: I have years of emails and addresses. First: What is the best way to back them up? Second: How can I read what I saved when in a different program? Supposedly, these files belong to me when on my personal computer, but it seems I can't do much with them unless I stay in their original program. I understand I can drag and dump files to another folder, which I have done in the past, but they can only be read by the program of origin.

— Robbie R., Santa Rosa Beach

A: Actually, Robbie, “first” would have been telling me what email client you’re using, because the answer is different whether it’s one of the many perturbations of webmail that exist, or a local on-PC client, such as Outlook or Thunderbird. Since I don’t know precisely what it is you want to accomplish, I’m going to keep my answer pretty generic in the hope that it covers enough ground to answer your question, and any similar questions that you or other readers have on this topic.

You are absolutely correct when you say that the files belong to you. The engine computer in your car also belongs to you, but that doesn’t mean you’re privy to its contents or can copy the program from it somewhere else. There is no expectation with email (or any other software for that matter) that you will have the ability to decode and view the contents of files it produces without the original software.

Each software engineer writes his or her software to save the program’s data in whatever format he or she deems best to the task, whether that be text documents, pictures, audio/video media, or e-mail. The problem is that each software supports different features, and in different ways. For example, text documents might support boldfaced, italic, and underlined text, different fonts, embedded graphics, etc.

The engineers at Microsoft have designed and implemented Word with ways to encode data along with the text to tell the software where boldface, italic, or underline begin and end. Engineers at other software companies solve these problems in their own software and come up with totally different solutions. This is why various programs’ data files all have a different file extension. It identifies to Windows which application software knows how to decode the contents of the file.

With that in mind, there are several formats which, over time, have become de facto standards for storing certain types of file information. For pictures and graphics, extensions like .bmp, .gif, .jpg, and .png (and many others) are pretty much universal and can be read and decoded by most programs that can handle graphics. The same goes with .wav, .mp3, and so on, for music.

For email, there are so many ways to handle it that it becomes a little more tricky. There is an extension — .eml — that is a reasonably standardized format for a single email message. But email clients don’t deal with only a single message. Rather, they deal with collections of messages, sorted into folders, stored on email servers or on your local hard drive. Most people are satisfied to allow the email client to manage all of this for them, so long as their archived email is available when they want to access it.

It is not a normal, nor in my opinion desirable function to jump back and forth between email clients, and certainly not to read email outside of an email client. However, it is possible to transfer all or part of your collected email to a new client. This is a rather involved process, and not all clients support it, so, as I implied above, this is more of a 1-shot than something that allows you to randomly pick a client-du-jour to read your email.

The process is, of course, specific to the client you’re using. However, most of them call it the same thing. That is, you export your email from one client, and you import it into another. Some clients can read or even write other clients’ file formats. It is your task to determine whether both clients support a common import/export format that will allow you to move emails between them.

Consult your favorite search engine, or your email clients’ help pages for details.

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