Mailbox With E-mailOn an average day, I’m usually working in at least 3 different operating systems and sometimes 4. Thus far today, I’ve been working in Windows XP, SuSE Linux, and Palm OS. I’ll be working in those 3 OSs off and on all day. Having such a varied work environment makes certain tasks, such as maintaining e-mail a pain in the butt. So a few month ago, I switched all of my e-mail accounts to something called IMAP. You may not be jumping OSs like I do, but if you use a desktop and a laptop, or want to check e-mail from home and work, you might want to consider using an IMAP account and here’s why.

A Tale Of Two Protocols
There are two main types of e-mail accounts that you can have: POP3 or IMAP. The difference between the two is how e-mail is transferred to the desktop. If you have an e-mail account, chances are it’s probably a POP3 type. With POP3, when your e-mail client retrieves your e-mail it downloads the mail to your desktop and then deletes the e-mails from the server. All of your e-mail is managed on the desktop. The folders you create to file e-mail for example are stored on your PC. For most people, this works just fine.

The only time POP3 type accounts become awkward is when you need to move your e-mail to another computer. For example, let’s say that you’re taking a business trip and you want to bring your laptop. For most of us, this means copying your e-mail over to the laptop. Back when I was using The Bat!, or Outlook, I was transferring a 150MB file back and forth when travelling and that was a bit burdensome.

So How Does IMAP Differ?
Well, in a nutshell, everything is managed on the server. So when your e-mail client requests your new mail, a copy of the e-mail is delivered to your desktop. The original is kept on the server. When you delete the e-mail on your desktop, the original is deleted from the server. If you create a folder to file your e-mail, that folder is created on the server and not on the desktop. All of your e-mail is stored and managed on the server. To the naked eye, it really doesn’t “feel” any different than the standard POP3. Where the difference comes in is when you switch computers.

Let’s go back to that laptop example again. You’re going on a business trip, but instead of copying your e-mail file(s) to the laptop, you simply open your e-mail client and there’s your e-mail. Since the e-mail lives on the server, there’s nothing to copy over. It’s there ready and waiting for you. 🙂 All your filed e-mail, sent e-mail and even deleted e-mail can be accessed from anywhere you have an e-mail client installed.

Where IMAP really shines is when you’re working with different operating systems. Trying to migrate your e-mail from Windows to Linux, or Macintosh can be a real PITA, but with IMAP you don’t have to. Simply install an IMAP e-mail client on the other OS, setup your account and you’re off to the races! If you use Mozilla Thunderbird, you’ll have the same exact client on any OS you choose. I can’t tell you how kick ass it is to be able to fire up my laptop into SuSE 9 and have the same client that I use when I’m in Windows XP – it’s seamless.

What About Palm OS?
I mentioned at the start of this entry that I use Palm OS on a daily basis and yes I am able to manage my e-mail via my Palm device as well. VersaMail currently supports IMAP and my favorite Palm OS e-mail client, SnapperMail, is soon to support it as well.

So how do I use it? Well, in the mornings, when I’m typing my weblog entries on my AlphaSmart Dana Wireless, I can also check my e-mail as well. If I’m on the road, I can use my Samsung I-300 to manage my e-mail, and when I’m at an Internet Café’, I can use my Tungsten C to do the same thing. Granted, I don’t do this each and every day, but I typically check my e-mail via my Palm at least once per day.

You Need Help Dude
It may sound like I’m an e-mail junkie. Here I am talking about checking my e-mail from 7 – 8 different computers/devices, doesn’t that illustrate that I have a problem? ??? In my defense, I don’t check my e-mail from ALL of these places each and every day. What I like about IMAP is that I have the option of checking my e-mail from various places. I like having the flexibility so that I’m tied to one machine and only one machine.

If I’m working in Linux, I like that I can manage all of my e-mail quickly and easily. When I get back to my main workstation and I’m back in Windows XP, all the changes, filing, deletion, etc. that I did in Linux are apparent when I’m in Windows. So if I sent an e-mail from one machine, it appears in the Sent Folder on the other machine. I can’t tell you the times that a client has asked me to resend something and I don’t have to concern myself with which machine I sent that e-mail from. 🙂

Is It Really That Easy?
There are some minor differences between POP3 and IMAP, but if you have a decent e-mail client, like Thunderbird, then you probably won’t notice them. Just for the sake of full disclosure, the way e-mail is deleted from an IMAP account is a little bit weird. When you delete an e-mail it’s actually “marked” for deletion and isn’t deleted until you “Purge” the folder. So if you see an e-mail with a line through it and you’re wondering, “How the heck do I delete this thing?”, just know that you have to purge. Again, a quality e-mail client will hide this from you so that it’s never an issue.

The other option you may want to investigate is off-line folders. If you’re using IMAP on a laptop and you want to manage your e-mail when you’re on the plane, then you’re going to want to make sure that you’re setup off-line folders that save all of your e-mails on the desktop as well. Otherwise, you’ll launch your e-mail only to discover you don’t have any, it’s on the server. 😛

Give It A Spin
Other than a few small quirks, that you may never even notice, IMAP is a great way to handle your e-mail if you use multiple machines. If you want to manage your e-mail at home, or at work for example, IMAP could really be the ticket. In the end, it really all depends on how much e-mail you have and how manage your account(s). I have 12 e-mail accounts and receive approximately 500 e-mails a day. For me IMAP has been a life saver.

If IMAP sounds like something that’s right for you, you can get a free IMAP account at Fastmail and try it to see if you like it. Since it won’t be your main account(s), you can “kick the tires” and really get a feel of what an IMAP account is like. If you decide you like it, then you can check with your ISP to see if they offer it. If you run your own web site, chances are your hosting provider already has IMAP setup and ready for you to use.