IMAP Is Awesome 5 Years Ago – Building a Better Email Protocol For Tomorrow

While everyone is going nuts over Gmail’s new IMAP support, I think it’s implementation is too little, too late.

IMAP would’ve been a great addition to GMAIL years ago, but many of its benefits have been displaced or improved on by modern mail clients, including webmail. And because of that, the way we manage email (or should manage email) has fundamentally changed.

Does anyone use folders anymore?

Folders are obsolete.

Well, using many folders are obsolete.

Merlin Mann has recommended as little as 5 folders other than the Inbox and Trash. This was before Smart Mailboxes and Search folders were popular, so today I think you could scale that down to as little as a single Archive folder.

The whole point of folders is to help you organize and find important email – but today there’s a much better way to do that. It’s called Spotlight, or Gmail Search, or even search in Vista.

If you don’t backup you’re asking for trouble anyway

Backing up your email is incredibly simple compared to 10 years ago. In OSX all you have to do is backup your Library folder. On Windows – Ok, I don’t know how to do it on Windows.

But even if you did have a complete system failure, everything GMail is still available. Worst case scenario is you still have your email. That doesn’t sound so bad.

The Web Browser Killed IMAP

With IMAP you can use any client you want to access your email account. That was awesome 5 years ago.

Today, and even back then, we have loyalties to email programs. We aren’t so ready to try something new every week. We find what we like and stick with it until something so new and revolutionary comes along that we have to try it out.

Gmail has simplified email for so many people that they actually prefer its interface to any desktop app out there. Staying in sync is never a problem for these users. Everywhere they go, no matter what browser they use, it’s the same experience.

We Can Do Better Than IMAP

Still, IMAP’s benefits over POP can’t be denied. IMAP retains folder structure, up-to-date copies, and works with basically every email client. The problem with IMAP is that it makes us work with email the way we did in the 90s. I think it can be better, and I think that Gmail and modern desktop clients should be used as a model.

What we’d need is a standard server-side protocol to help us take advantage of the features of IMAP with the features of email clients today. If you want perfect synchronization we need to realize that we don’t (or shouldn’t) work with email the same way we did even 5 years ago.

No more thinking in terms of “Received” and “Sent”

Everything is a threaded conversation, just like in GMail. Don’t have your received emails in one box and your sent emails in another. Think Full Duplex archiving and reference.

Server-side search indexes

It’s almost amazing to me that Gmail doesn’t have anything like search folders. Google is synonymous with search, yet its email application doesn’t have anything like this. You can nearly replicate this using filters and labels, but that doesn’t help you with anything you received or sent before you built the filter. Gmail tries to make up for this by finding messages it thinks you want the label applied to, but it’s kludgy and doesn’t make things easier for when you modify the filter.

If there were a Search Folder standard you could build a query with a set of protocols that give you a view of the appropriate email, not a whole folder of copies.

MS Exchange syncs search folders – let’s give credit where it’s due.

Server-side tagging?

Call Google’s labels what they really are – tags.

I’m hesitant to recommend tags, but I realize that a lot of people like that functionality. Still, I think that tags aren’t necessary if you’ve built your search folders well. Plus, they add a whole new level of maintenance to email that probably shouldn’t exist.

But I guess we can leave them in for draft 1.

Get Rid of Stars

Flags are doing just fine. Flags mean “you need to follow-up this email”. Stars mean “you got a 100 on your spelling test”.

Email is Email, Not A Task Manager

I propose a system that is really good at organizing email, not at telling you what to do with the information it holds. Because of that I think it’s important to separate your tasks from your email.

Plus, it’s too difficult to try to get everyone on the same task management page. Some people use GTD. Some people just do whatever they think they’re supposed to be doing. Some people don’t do anything until they get a nudge from someone else.

But with email I think it’s possible to establish some standard conventions to message management.

3 thoughts on “IMAP Is Awesome 5 Years Ago – Building a Better Email Protocol For Tomorrow”

  1. Why not just archive all of your mail when you’re done reading it and then use the search function? It would simplify all of the busy work of organization which wastes a huge amount of time. <br/><br/>Over the years I’ve noticed this work philosophy in Western culture that pushes the belief that if we just got really organized we’d somehow be more productive, and I think that’s far from the truth. <br/><br/>The simplification of workflow is more important than hyper-organization and that’s what gmail’s webmail does. People are missing the point that you don’t need an exchange server, outlook, another mail app on your pc or phone. Fortunately for them though Google gives you options which you will rarely find in similar free services (ahem, pop access yahoo).<br/><br/>So if a user is stubborn and unwilling to change to a new product out of complacency they can slog on using the most obscure outdated version of outlook or the latest iteration of whatever 3rd party program they prefer but stll reap some of the benefits like storage, but they’ll be missing out on the real gem which is simply their webmail.

  2. I agree that being organized doesn’t mean that one is productive, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t help. I like the idea of Smart Folders as a shortcut for things you may need – Emails with attachments, emails received in the last 2 weeks, etc.<br/><br/>I do exactly what you propose, but it seems like it hasn’t clicked for many people. I’ve seen people organize their Outlook with folders for each contact they have. It’s a waste of time and it’s a byproduct of how people worked with email when it first came out. They have Email 101 down, now they need to take Email 201.

  3. I understand why people want to take all of that extra time to ensure they can use email or a certain program the same way, I’d put myself in that camp only a few months ago.<br/><br/>After using google applications for a month and a half I’m sold on it. I also have the added benefit, or possible bias, of dealing with a horde of accountants who have enormous problems that cost a huge amount of work hours, and it’s primarily an exchange/outlook problem whenever they call.

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