IMAP or POP, which is best?

There’s only one way to find out … fight!

eMail has been buzzing around our offices and homes for 40 years, well the idea has at least, and in the last 10 years eMail has been an essential part of owning and using a computer. So how does it work?

SMTP is the method or protocol which describes how electronic messages are sent. SMTP delivers messages to mailboxes.

POP and IMAP are the two different protocols which describe how electronic messages are retrieved. POP and IMAP collect messages from mailboxes.

Mail Servers communicate with Mail Clients (Outlook/Mail.App/Thunderbird/HotMail etc) using IMAP and/or POP protocols. They also communicate with Mail Clients and other Mail Servers using SMTP to deliver or send eMails.

IMAP has the advantage in today’s eMail world since it can deal with multiple devices accessing the same mailboxes; eMail on your laptop, phone and work computer stays “in sync”. POP requires only one connection at a time; your various devices can become “out of sync”. This can be avoided by choosing the option to “leave a copy of the messages on the server” but not all POP clients or POP servers allow this. IMAP also allows you to create folders on servers to store your eMails, these folders are available on all your devices so your eMail is truly “cloud based”. IMAP also makes upgrading your computer a little easier if you store all your eMail on a server.

So IMAP is best for users, although POP can be preferred by some eMail server administrators with small processors.

MacOS X Lion and iOS 5 mean that you don’t need to understand how eMail works, no IMAP settings need to be entered if you use a Apple ID, it just works with no fuss. The same is also true for Windows 7 and Windows Live ID, almost.

Apple’s iMessage makes eMail just another part of the messaging world, the Blackberry has already pioneered the messaging platform and Apple have joined in with iMessage. Today I can send a message from my phone to a contact in my address book and my phone will find the best method to send the message, if the recipient is online a direct message will be sent, if not then a text message will be sent instead. I can even send a text message to an eMail address.

Will we ever call an electronic message an electronic message? When will we not need to understand how the message is delivered or what settings we need to enter to make it work, other than our digital identities (eMail address and phone number), just one messaging system that works electronically. iMessage is a step towards this but I suspect that a unified message system is a bit like finding a unified theory of everything in physics.

One other thing, there are no guarantees that your eMail will be delivered or that the contents will not be altered (maliciously or accidentally) in transit, even if you are paying for your eMail service. This has always been the case and probably always will.

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