By Janet Pieterse
IMAP is probably email's best kept secret. Short for Internet Message Access Protocol, it combines the best of traditional POP3 email, which downloads into your email program for easy reading, with the best of Webmail, which is a handy way to get your email when you're away from the office and near an Internet connection.
If you're like most people, you probably set your computer to download your email at regular intervals. If you've rushed out to a meeting away from the office and have forgotten to turn this off, Webmail can't help you. That urgent email you were waiting for is sitting on your computer, and not on the Internet.
Sync Email Easily
IMAP solves the problem because the email stays on the Internet until you have seen it and decided to delete it. Even if it's been downloaded onto your office computer, if it hasn't been deleted, it remains in the Internet mailbox. You can set up IMAP on your desktop computer, your laptop, your netbook and your IMAP-compatible cell phone, and they will all display the same email when you log in to get it. It will download onto the device you are currently using, and you can read it in your normal email program. Every time you log into your email account, the computer or phone, you are using will synchronize with the main IMAP mailbox, so that when you log in again from a different device, everything will be much the same.
This means that even if your office computer is downloading mail every half hour while you are out on the road, you can log in with your cell phone or netbook to read all that mail, delete the spam and reply to anything urgent. When you get back, your office computer mailbox will be just about the same as the one on your phone or netbook.
How to Get an IMAP Account
Chances are you already have IMAP. It's not new. Back in the days when people had only one computer, no cell phone, and certainly no mobile Internet, there were no real benefits to IMAP, which is probably why ordinary people never found out about it. Your service provider has probably been offering it all along. If not, change your service provider or route your email through a free service like Gmail until your contract expires.
IMAP is also very easy to set up. Add a new account to your email program. When it asks you to specify your incoming mail server type, click on the arrow in the drop-down box. You will almost certainly find IMAP just below POP3. You will need to get the settings from your email provider, but you could try guessing: for example, if your POP3 server is pop3.email.com then try imap.email.com. Don't change the SMTP server. If your guess doesn't work, ask your email provider for instructions. Sometimes you need to specify special security options. Gmail has full instructions on its Web site.
If you're a multi-computer person, you'll wonder how you ever did without it.
About the Author
Janet Pieterse is a freelance writer with IMAP on her desktop, laptop and cell phone.