Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Email Interoperability: IMAP

If you have not switched from Post Offfice Protocol (POP) to Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) - you should! What's IMAP? According to IMAP.org, it's "a method of accessing electronic mail or bulletin board messages that are kept on a (possibly shared) mail server. In other words, it permits a "client" email program to access remote message stores as if they were local. For example, email stored on an IMAP server can be manipulated from a desktop computer at home, a workstation at the office, and a notebook computer while traveling, without the need to transfer messages or files back and forth between these computers."

How am I using it? I find myself relying on my gmail account as my primary account and, in a typical day, I'm accessing the account from multiple devices. Let's look at a typical day - last Friday (Nov 16), I decided I'd log access to my gmail account. Here's my list:

6:00 AM - Up early at home, check gmail account using home computer and Firefox web browser.

7:00 AM - Eating breakfast (Cheerios), get email notification on iPhone, read and reply to message from student using iPhone.

8:30 AM - In meeting with Regional Technology Enterprise Council, monitoring (reading, replying and moving email to separate folders) using MacBook running Entourage.

10:30 AM - Using desktop computer in office, monitoring (reading, replying and moving email to separate folders) using gmail in Firefox web browser.

11:30 AM - Using a Verizon NextStep notebook computer running XP to prepare for a class. While preparing I access gmail on the notebook using Internet Explorer 7.

Rest of day - a combination of email monitoring, replying, etc using multiple devices. I do find myself using the iPhone more and more.

So let's count - last Friday I accessed my gmail account using 5 different devices in numerous locations running 3 different operating systems...... Does this sound familiar?

Let's get back to IMAP - late last month Google added IMAP support to gmail and it has made my life a lot easier. As we all move from device to device answering email, deleting and moving messages around it can get very confusing if you are not using IMAP. How is IMAP different than POP? Here's more from IMAP.org:

IMAP's ability to access messages (both new and saved) from more than one computer has become extremely important as reliance on electronic messaging and use of multiple computers increase, but this functionality cannot be taken for granted: the widely used Post Office Protocol (POP) works best when one has only a single computer, since it was designed to support "offline" message access, wherein messages are downloaded and then deleted from the mail server. This mode of access is not compatible with access from multiple computers since it tends to sprinkle messages across all of the computers used for mail access. Thus, unless all of those machines share a common file system, the offline mode of access that POP was designed to support effectively ties the user to one computer for message storage and manipulation.

Post Office Protocol (POP) was great when I was using primarily one computer but got very confusing as I moved from device to device as I do now. With IMAP I can do things like create, delete, and rename mailboxes, reply to, move and delete individual messages on one device and automatically see the results of those changes on all devices and applications I use to access my gmail account.

Setup for various email clients is simple and well documented - just search on your particular application. For example, if using Outlook do a search on "Outlook IMAP Configuration" and you'll find the procedure. To give you an idea of how easy it is - here's a PC Mechanic video titled How-to: Set up IMAP Gmail with Outlook Express / Thunderbird:

If you give IMAP a try - you won't go back to POP.

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