Today, I spent an inordinate amount of time messing with IMAP.
IMAP is a protocol that allows e-mail clients to access e-mail stored on a server. Unlike the more popular POP3 (Post Office Protocol version 3), IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) allows the messages to stay on the server, and allows clients to establish a folder structure on the server.
This makes it possible, in principle, to access the same mailboxes from multiple client devices like a desktop computer, a smartphone, or a tablet.
Don’t we already have this with any Webmail provider, such as Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, or the new Outlook.com? Well, yes, but… with all these services, your mail actually physically resides on computers that do not belong to you. I’d be less concerned about this were it not for a case that happened just the other day, a hacker using social engineering to gain access to a journalist’s iCloud account and through that account, everything else (including the journalist’s phone, laptop, and other accounts.)
If Apple can fall victim to social engineering, so can Google or Microsoft. So for this reason alone, I prefer to keep my e-mail on servers that I physically own. But I still like the convenience of accessing my e-mail from anywhere without having to copy bulky mail files or worry about synchronizing them.
This is where IMAP comes in. Except that it turned out to be a much more difficult task than I anticipated.
The basic setup is easy… enable IMAP and go. But then… the University of Washington IMAP server that is included with Slackware Linux has some quirky settings (such as showing all my folders on the server, not just my mail folders) that can only be corrected by recompiling. It took a while before I realized this, and therefore I wasted a lot of time with bugs in the various Android IMAP clients I tried, bugs that just went away once I recompiled the IMAP server. Outlook (which I plan on continuing to use on my main desktop computer) has its own quirks, not the least of which is the insanely difficult nature of seemingly trivial tasks, such as relocating built-in folders like the junk e-mail folder.
In the end, I won. There are still some quirks to be worked out, but I can now access my e-mail from Outlook, the Web (with Squirrelmail) and from my Android phone and tablet just fine. Still, it was a much harder battle than it should have been. I honestly expected this technology to be more mature in the year 2012.