I Heart IMAP

I am finally ready to leave the email technology of the 80s and embrace the technology of the 90s.

I was, many years ago, a prolific contributor to the Elm mail project. Elm was groundbreaking in that it was one of the first, user-friendly, "screen oriented" email programs. Although it was text based, you could arrow around the screen to read your mailbox and page through messages.

Elm spawned two main successors, the Pine mail program (which tried to dumb down Elm) and the Mutt mail program (which tried to smarten it up). I have, until recently, been using Mutt.

(Interestingly, the Mutt email program appeared because Michael Elkins offered changes to Elm that were not accepted. It's not that the changes were bad. The problem is that they needed memory, and that would have prevented Elm from working on small memory machines. That was a big deal in those pre-virtual-memory days, but probably sealed the deal for Elm's doomed future.)

The reason I stuck with Mutt was not merely stubbornness, but email accessibility. Wherever I was, I could launch a terminal session, tunnel through the net back to my workstation at home, and run Mutt to access my mail. That ensured regardless of whether I was at my desktop, on my laptop, at a client site, or wherever, I could access my mailbox and all my saved mail folders.

That paradigm broke when I got a new phone. My new phone has email capability and I wanted to be able to use it. I've installed all the applications so I can run terminal sessions on my phone. If I wanted to, I could tunnel home and run Mutt. Unfortunately, the flea-sized glyphs and arduous keyboard navigation make that impractical.

The solution I chose was to run a secure IMAP mail server on my workstation to manage my mail folders. The IMAP protocol made my mailbox client independent. That is, now I can choose any program or device to access my mailbox, just so long as it understands IMAP.

Mutt understands IMAP, so I could stick with that. But I didn't have to. I could choose from a wide range of email programs

I picked Mozilla Thunderbird as my primary mail client. I run it on my desktop as well as my laptop. Regardless of where I am, it connects to the IMAP server on my workstation to access my mailbox.

When I'm away from a computer, I can get email on my phone via IMAP.

There is a small price to be paid when running IMAP. Since the mailbox is remote, there is quite a bit of metadata that has to be transmitted across the network to my client. That slows things down a bit. It is, however, more than compensated for by the increased efficiency and ease of use of the nice mail client.

I'm surprised IMAP doesn't get wider use. Most popular mail programs support it. A lot of mail providers serve it. Did you know that Gmail users can use IMAP to access their mailbox? You can let Google manage your mailbox, but use a full-featured client such as Thunderbird (or even Outlook, heaven forbid) to read your mail.

If you read mail in more than one place, you may want to look into using IMAP.


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Which IMAP server did you choose?

That's pretty much the same route I took with my mail clients. (Except for work, where I was forced to use Outlook.)

I remember having a hard time trying to figure out which IMAP server to go with. I think I ended up using Dovecot, because it handled maildir and IMAP easier than the other ones I tried, but I would love to hear which server you've ended up using, and why.


IMAP Server

I went with Dovecot. I like it a lot.

I'm using Courier on the mail server in my data center, and I greatly prefer Dovecot. It seems simpler, cleaner, and the administrative interface is more sensible.