What IMAP Email Can Do for You

What Is Wrong with POP Email Accounts?

Wow! That's neat!
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IMAP may read a bit like an name Apple rejected for its maps app. IMAP does not come with either skeuomorph artifacts or white, though, and you cannot ever really see it. IMAP is short for "Internet Message Access Protocol", and internet message access is precisely what it allows you to do.

POP and IMAP, the Email Access Protocols

When you retrieve your email messages from your internet service provider's mail server in your email program, the server and your program (the client) have traditionally used the Post Office Protocol (POP) to talk to each other.

Providing a way to get email messages to your computer is what IMAP and POP share. While POP was designed to do merely that, though, IMAP does provide more useful functionality.

POP and Its Problem with Multiple Computers or Devices

In a typical POP session, you will download all (new) messages to your email program and delete them from the server immediately. This procedure works perfectly fine as long as you access your email from only one computer (and only one email program).

As soon as you try to work on your email from more than one machine (a desktop at work, a laptop at home and a phone, for example), email becomes and a major headache to manage. Soon enough, you will start forwarding and redirecting messages to yourself or set up independent email accounts that forward to each other. Maybe you'd also try another esoteric, but, chances are, not very elegant approach.

At the root of your problem lies POP's concept of offline email access.

Email messages are delivered to the server. Your email program downloads them to your computer and deletes all messages from the server immediately. This means they are all local to your computer, where you operate on them.

Now, how can IMAP improve this unfortunate—yet, unfortunately, not unlikely—situation?

While IMAP can be used for offline email access in very much the same way as POP, it also provides online and disconnected yet synchronized mail processing.

IMAP: An Email Inbox in the Cloud

What does that mean? Basically, you operate on the mailbox that resides on the server as if it were local to your computer.

Messages are not downloaded and deleted immediately but reside on the server. The email program keeps a local copy only for display.

On the IMAP server, the messages can be marked with several flags, including "seen", "deleted", "answered", "flagged". IMAP also supports user-defined flags; these are rarely used, though.

Synchronized Access to All Email Folders

What else do you do with messages in your email client? You would file them in different folders, and you would search the folders for specific messages. Both can be done via IMAP on an IMAP server as well.

You can set up mail folders and file messages in them, and you can tell the server to search its repository and deliver the results to you.

IMAP was designed for online email access. You operate on the mailbox on the server as if it was on your computer. This allows for using multiple computers to access the same email account easily.

Shared Folders

IMAP also allows access to shared mailboxes. This is an easy means of sharing information, or to make sure an email inquiry (to a support mailbox, for example), is dealt with.

All support staff can access the IMAP mailbox, and they will instantly see which messages have been answered and which are still pending.

Shared folders are not frequently used, and support is limited.

Example IMAP Usage

Imagine Jina, who loves working in the kitchen using her laptop and at the lake with an iPad but also has a computer at work.

When she had a look at her IMAP Inbox just before she left the office, there was an urgent message from John, her boyfriend. We don't know what he wanted to know, but it was important enough for Jina to flag the message as being urgent and waiting to be replied.

Coming home, Jina had already forgotten about John's message. But, thanks to routine, she dragged her portable computer to the kitchen table like she always did and checked her IMAP account's inbox. There was John's message again, demanding attention with its glowingly red flag. She replied immediately.

The message Jina sent back to John was automatically stored on the IMAP server in the "sent items" folder. On the next day at the beach, Jina's mailbox contained a message from John flagged as "answered" and a message from her to John in the "sent items" folder. She moved them both to the folder dedicated to John.

(Updated October 2016)

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