How I learned to stop worrying and love IMAP

This is the story of an e-mail junkie who decided that an out-of-fashion e-mail protocol was worth going back to.

Last week, I switched my e-mail from POP e-mail to IMAP. If you’re not familiar with those acronyms, here’s the gist: POP (Post Office Protocol) mail downloads your mail to your hard drive, while IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) keeps everything—even your sent mail—on a server. In short, IMAP gets you e-mail portability without having to use a Web-based e-mail interface. And theoretically, any e-mail address can support POP or IMAP—the administrator or Internet service provider (ISP) just has to support IMAP.

The last time I used IMAP, it was 1998 and I was finishing up college. We all used a Unix program called pine, via a Unix emulator called Telnet, to access our e-mail. I fumbled around with this antiquated interface, and I was thrilled to discover the Mac-based client Eudora, which I began using when I went out into the “real world.” For me, naive young thing that I was, I equated IMAP with the antiquated pine via Telnet, and POP with Eudora and ease-of-use.

And now, with Internet service providers generally providing POP e-mail only, it seems that a lot of us (academic institutions excepted) have forgotten about good old IMAP.

Back to the present. Here’s what started this recent crisis: I have three computers I need to access e-mail on regularly (a Windows machine and two Macs) so my POP e-mail was a complete mess until now. I couldn’t find the e-mail messages I was looking for, working from home is a complete pain, and I was wasting gigabytes of hard drive space by downloading e-mail I didn’t need on multiple machines. I didn’t even bother filing my e-mail. Not to mention that my Microsoft Entourage database was a huge behemoth, causing crashes and hanging quite often.

And I am one of those weird people who is always trying to reach organizing nirvana. My most recent organizing-my-stuff epiphany, brought to me by Merlin Mann in his Macworld article “The inbox makeover”, was that there is a much better way to organize my e-mail. (I have since become an obsessive reader of Merlin’s 43Folders Web site.)

Basically, this approach involves emptying your inbox into about six folders that you then process separately and often. I tried it for a week, and then decided it worked much better than the “accumulate and search” e-mail method. Of course, if I’m using POP mail, my folders won’t be available on all three of my computers.

IMAP lets me keep all my e-mail on my company’s e-mail server, along with any custom folders, and my Sent items. I can now find my way though any e-mail thread, no matter which machine I’m using. The downside of this situation, of course, and one that might make a lot of people nervous, is that everything is stored on a server unless you move items to your computer. And, there’s storage space. Your mail server admin or ISP has to set the storage limit and decide how strict s/he will be about making you stick to it.

This storage-limit issue would make it nearly impossible to use the “I keep everything in my inbox and search for it when I need it” method of e-mail organization. But IMAP is perfect for my new six-folder approach. This paradigm means I delete more e-mail faster, and thus use up less storage space.

I’m much more confident that my e-mail is properly managed. Now, if someone can just give me some tips for keeping my flags on messages while I’m using Entourage, Mail.app, and my Webmail, I will be one step closer to enlightenment.

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