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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

One fewer reason to store data on your computer

In my post Online storage I wrote about why you shouldn’t store your data on your desktop/laptop computer, but instead store it on servers that you can access over the Internet.

That includes your email. Web-based email is popular, but what if (like me) you prefer to do your email through an email program (like Outlook Express or Thunderbird) than through a Web browser? Up to now you’ve usually had to download your email to your local computer, while (optionally) leaving your original copies on the server. While that works, unfortunately the communication goes only one way: when you read an email message through your email program it gets marked as “read” locally, but not on the server. Same for deleting messages and other things. And properly organizing the messages you send is usually a hassle.

There is a solution: it’s called IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) and is one way that an email program and a mail server can communicate. With IMAP everything is synchronized: whatever happens at one end gets reflected on the other. And the mail server is the “primary residence” of your email; you may have copies of various messages locally, for speed and for availability when you have no Internet connection, but IMAP meets my objective of storing your data on servers intended for that purpose.

IMAP isn’t new; in fact it’s older than the public Internet. But the popular free email services such as Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail and Gmail haven’t supported it, unfortunately.

This has now changed. Gmail has just added IMAP access as a new feature (though Google says it will take a few days to be rolled out to all Gmail users).

Since Gmail is so popular, its addition of IMAP means that a lot more people will no longer have any good reason to store their data on their local computer. The effect will be magnified if Gmail's competitors try to keep up by also adding IMAP.


Blogger mrG said...

I've been waiting hundreds of years for this. At long last I can retire fetchmail, get away from that noisy web interface, and still have my emails where I and whenever. Bravo gmail!

Thursday, October 25, 2007 at 5:33:00 p.m. EDT  
Blogger Dave Till said...

Thanks for the suggestion - I've just created a Google email account, and set it to IMAP.

Happily, I can send mail from my new Google account as "", so I don't have to change my official email address.

Better still: I was able to seamlessly upload my saved email to my Google account (which only took up 2% of my space, even though some of it goes back years).

Having said all that: I'm still strongly in favour of having valuable information in two places - one on my computer, and one away from it. That way, I'm covered if my computer crashes, and I'm covered if my network connection disappears for any length of time.

I'm also worried about becoming too dependent on Google's services, nice though they are. I suppose it's better than being too dependent on Microsoft.

Saturday, October 27, 2007 at 10:15:00 a.m. EDT  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Dave, you're quite right about keeping copies separate from Gmail. One convenient way is to back up your Gmail right into the same email program that you use for IMAP access to Gmail. Then you can use the same email program to access Gmail "live" via IMAP and to access a backup copy on your own computer. You can find one article on how to set this up at

Sunday, October 28, 2007 at 10:19:00 a.m. EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's one step at a time for Gmail, I suppose. I have never been a fan of outlook and like most people, prefer to use Yahoo or Gmail instead of reading my messages locally. It's been a few months since this post but I've only recently gotten myself a Gmail account. I will check the IMAP settings out and see if I can use it to my advantage. Thanks for the info!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008 at 3:30:00 a.m. EST  

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