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Gmail's Latest Trick: IMAP, Therefore I Am

Google's Gmail Web-based e-mail service is rolling out a terrific, free and overdue feature: The ability to synchronize your Gmail account to the desktop mail program of your choice. This includes more than just your inbox, such as all of your messages and all their labels, complete with records of which ones you've read, replied, forwarded or starred for follow-up.

This feature goes by the unwieldy acronym of IMAP, short for Internet Message Access Protocol. It's how e-mail ought to work, but it's been largely ignored by both Internet providers and most Web-mail systems to date. Maybe Google's adoption of it will be the kick in the pants that these competitors need.

IMAP fixes most of the parts about conventional e-mail -- called POP, short for Post Office Protocol -- that Web-mail users hate. Where POP only downloads your e-mail, IMAP keeps it in sync, giving you the same view of your e-mail everywhere. You're no longer forced to guess which messages you'd answered at work when you get home, then re-file messages into separate folders after you'd done the same chore at work.

IMAP also provides the same automatic mail synchronization that many offices pay gobs of money to get as part of such cumbersome, proprietary "groupware" applications as Microsoft's Outlook and IBM's Lotus Notes.

But almost every major Internet and Web-mail provider -- Verizon, Comcast, EarthLink, Cox, Yahoo, Hotmail and many others -- only provides POP e-mail downloading to its users. (AOL has been one of the few exceptions to that rule, providing IMAP access for years before it began allowing POP access earlier this year.)

To turn on IMAP in your Gmail, click on the "Settings" link at the top of the inbox screen. If you see a heading for "Forwarding and POP/IMAP," this feature's been turned on in your account; if that heading only mentions POP access, you'll have to wait a little longer while Google activates it for everyone.

For more help, see the "Getting Started" page, which explains how IMAP works and how to set it up in such programs as Mozilla Thunderbird, Apple's Mail and Microsoft's Outlook, Outlook Express and Windows Mail.

Note that not all of Gmail's features translate over IMAP. For instance, each label you've created becomes a separate folder. A copy of Apple's Mail also had issues matching up its own "sent" and "trash" mailboxes with those on Gmail. An e-mail I trashed in Mail remained in Gmail's inbox, but with a "Deleted messages" label attached to it.

Left unclear is what IMAP access might do to Gmail's business model: If you can check your Gmail in a regular e-mail program, without ever seeing the ads on Gmail's own pages, what will that do to Google's profits? (Then again, I hardly ever see GMail's ads anyway; they're always cut off by the right side of my browser window.)

Now it's time for a pop quiz:

1) Had you ever heard of IMAP before reading this post?

2) If you hadn't, do you want to try it out now?

3) If you had, how pleased are you about this news?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 24, 2007; 12:03 PM ET
Categories:  The Web  
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Next: Does This Download Help or Hurt?


Thank goodness! Way overdue.

1. Yes
2. NA
3. Very.

Posted by: Pat | October 24, 2007 12:24 PM | Report abuse

1) Yes, I've known about it for quite a long time
2) NA
3) I'll definitely check it out since it will be good to be able to actually get a copy of everything down on my own PC, especially if I want to save my messages.
Guess it's time to finally install Outlook.

Posted by: Rob2 | October 24, 2007 12:32 PM | Report abuse

1) Yes, I've been using an IMAP service as my primary personal account for years but have recently been wondering whether all of the good stuff about Gmail's web interface would make it worth switching. This probably puts Gmail over the top.
3) Very pleased.

FYI, Rob, I have a regular Gmail account and also an account with "Gmail for your domain." On the former, IMAP isn't active yet, but it is active on the latter.

Posted by: DougK | October 24, 2007 12:40 PM | Report abuse

As a Thunderbird user with more than one machine up at all times, this'd be invaluable.

Unfortunately, Gmail is the LEAST busy of my many email accounts.

So. It's a start, but not where I need it to be, yet.

Posted by: Bush -- not related | October 24, 2007 12:43 PM | Report abuse

1) Yes, I've heard of it.

3) It's OK, but I use IMAP with hosting provider for my vanity domain, and I use Gmail to screen and store messages from all the e-mail lists I manage or subscribe to. No way I'd want to keep 2+GB in my provider's account...I only get 50MB with my current hosting plan.

So right now, I want to keep those accounts distinct, and will probably not use Gmail's IMAP when it shows up in my account. Also, IMAP usually requires SMTP access over port 25 to send mail, and many ISPs and workplaces block access to port 25 unless it's to their mail servers. I know my employer does, and Cox in VA does. So I'd still need web mail.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | October 24, 2007 1:14 PM | Report abuse

1. Yes
2. n/a
3. Been waiting for this and now I will really start using gmail.

Thunderbird user.

Posted by: Rosie Win | October 24, 2007 1:17 PM | Report abuse

1. Yes
3. I am quite pleased, since I will be able to access all my multitudinous email accounts using one program (Thunderbird). However, Gmail's Web interface is so good that I may continue using it.

Posted by: William | October 24, 2007 1:44 PM | Report abuse

3) It's OK, but I use IMAP with hosting provider for my vanity domain, and I use Gmail to screen and store messages from all the e-mail lists I manage or subscribe to. No way I'd want to keep 2+GB in my provider's account...I only get 50MB with my current hosting plan.

So right now, I want to keep those accounts distinct, and will probably not use Gmail's IMAP when it shows up in my account. Also, IMAP usually requires SMTP access over port 25 to send mail, and many ISPs and workplaces block access to port 25 unless it's to their mail servers. I know my employer does, and Cox in VA does. So I'd still need web mail.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | October 24, 2007 01:14 PM

IMAP by design has to keep accounts separate because everything is still stored on the server you connect to. So you would see a account and a account and unless you copy something from one to the other (think about being able to back up ALL your isp email to gmail drag and drop style!)

I don't know if gmail has set it up or not, but there are existing ssl/non ssl ports for smtp that allow outgoing on something other then 25 (Verizon DSL/FiOS has blocked 25 outbound for 4-5 years now, and it hasn't been a problem for me.)

Posted by: Jason S | October 24, 2007 1:44 PM | Report abuse

To Jason S: my Verizon DSL in Virginia has never had outbound port 25 blocked. I have heard that it's blocked on FiOS, though. In any case, Gmail uses outgoing port 587 for sending mail through POP/IMAP.

Posted by: William | October 24, 2007 1:47 PM | Report abuse

1. Yes
2. NA
3. Very Much

Posted by: saurabh | October 24, 2007 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I always appreciate your columns on tech stuff, but when it comes to IMAP, you're missing a HUGE problem with it. Cosmic Avenger hit the nail on the head: Because IMAP does not allow you to download your email, all your messages must remain on the server. The problem is that your account will eventually get full and, therefore, you'll have to delete old messages. Because they were never downloaded, that means the messages are gone. Poof. Never to be seen again.

That's the great thing about POP. You download the message and can delete it off the server, freeing up space in your email account while keeping the message on your computer in perpetuity. I see your point about having different machines getting different email and not knowing whether you responded, but that's a small problem compared to what it's like losing all your old email. And not everyone has an essentially infinite amount of server space for their email account.

What would be great is if you could tell us how to permanently take all those old messages that we get through IMAP and download them onto your computer. Can you do that and how?

Posted by: Ryan | October 24, 2007 1:58 PM | Report abuse

1. I had, and a Fast Forward article published years ago convinced me it's a must-have.
3. Too late. I had signed the IMAP on Gmail petition soon after it went up. I recently got fed up with Hotmail, and went looking for another provider. AOL's "my eAddress" snagged me with a free domain, IMAP, and 100 accounts. This was only the second time in 20+ years of having an internet email address that I switched, so I'm not about to change my (primary) address again. That said, I will start using IMAP instead of POP from Thunderbird to my infrequently used Google account.

Posted by: Mush | October 24, 2007 2:05 PM | Report abuse

1) Yes.
3) Much more likely, since it's something only AOL has.

Ryan -- that's not entirely true. You can move messages to your local inbox on most email programs (at least on Entourage) and then delete them from your online server. Of course, with 2GB, it's going to take a lot of messages to fill up, unless they have a lot of large attachments.

Posted by: ah | October 24, 2007 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Great idea. The best part is that I can set up Gmail IMAP on my iPhone! I've just learned how to do it in this guide
The hints are nice and setup is quick: we can do it in less then one minute. That's why I love technology.

Posted by: Brian | October 24, 2007 2:11 PM | Report abuse

ah, can you? If so, then I don't really mind about IMAP. I use OE. Can you do the same thing there?

Posted by: Ryan | October 24, 2007 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Jason S: Thanks, I've used Thunderbird for multiple accounts before (although not multiple IMAP accounts), it's mostly the port I *was* worried about.

William: THANK YOU! Now I'll be looking forward to trying it out.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | October 24, 2007 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Ryan -

All you have to do is create a local saved folder and drag the messages you want to save out of your inbox into that folder. That's it.

IMAP is infinitely better than POP. Once you go IMAP you never go back.

Posted by: Nobody | October 24, 2007 2:14 PM | Report abuse

1. Yes
2. NA
3. Very

Thanks for writing about this.

Posted by: Johan Strandberg | October 24, 2007 2:18 PM | Report abuse

If you just get Adblock for Firefox you won't see ads anywhere.

Posted by: Yup | October 24, 2007 2:19 PM | Report abuse


The gmail web-based interface is pretty nice as it is, at least compared to the last time I used a desktop program for my personal mail (Eudora, 1997). I can access it anywhere, and it doesn't take up valuable hard drive space on my 6-year-old computer. What is my incentive to bog myself down with a system-specific solution?

Posted by: Adam | October 24, 2007 2:22 PM | Report abuse

I honestly have no interest in IMAP, I'm perfectly happy checking my email through Gmail's web interface. I know people who like having a local copy of their email as a backup, but if all my Gmail got wiped tomorrow I can't say it'd really bother me, so I don't think I'll ever use this. My guess is Google will start charging for POP and IMAP access when they lift the "beta" label off Mail, but we'll see...

Posted by: suguru | October 24, 2007 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Awesome! As nice as the gmail page is, it's a step towards having thunderbird handle all my email within one program ... now if only I can deal with labels ...

Posted by: Gonzo, MD | October 24, 2007 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Is this article a Hoax?

Thats strange on my Gmail account the IMAP option isn't available on "Settings / Forwarding and POP"

BTW "AOL Free" email has IMAP also. I've been using at as a backup with MacOS X Mail. When i'm to lazy to fire up Camino to send a quick email.

Posted by: Chris | October 24, 2007 2:27 PM | Report abuse

1. Yes
3. super

Posted by: Anonymous | October 24, 2007 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Adam -

How are you bogged down with a "system specific" solution? With IMAP, you have the convenience of using a desktop email client while at the same time being able to check your messages when away from home using gmail's web interface - with both your desktop client and web interface kept in constant synchronization.

The fact that all your messages are kept on the server and NOT on your local drive (except any local folders you create) is what enables this (and you can also create server folders that appear in both your desktop client and the web interface).

I think you don't really understand how IMAP works.

Posted by: Nobody | October 24, 2007 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Chris -

It isn't enabled for all users yet apparently. I have it enabled in my gmail account.

Posted by: Nobody | October 24, 2007 2:32 PM | Report abuse

1. Yes
2. N/A
3. I'm stoked.

I've got Gmail now working seamlessly between my iPhone and and couldn't be happier. :)

Posted by: Anonymous | October 24, 2007 2:35 PM | Report abuse

1. Yes
2. N/A
3. Very much

Now, if they would just activate it for my account. I've been logging in and out of Gmail about every five minutes since yesterday evening, to see if it's there yet; this is harming my productivity.

Posted by: D T Nelson | October 24, 2007 3:15 PM | Report abuse

If this can synch with iCal in Apple, then I would be completely happy.

Posted by: Dan | October 24, 2007 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Fantastic. I had Google Mail providing mail service for my domain and liked the fact that messages were threaded, had ample space, and had an excellent webmail interface. Their spam filters are also excellent.

However, I recently have gotten more involved with email security, and have begun digitally signing all my outbound email and encouraging others to do the same. Using Google Mail's POP interface allowed me to access mail with Thunderbird (which allowed me to sign/encrypt messages much more easily), but I still had to go back to the webmail to mark messages as spam, move them out of the inbox, delete them, etc. Not very efficient.

As such, I changed my MX records to point at my web host's IMAP servers which would allow me to use Thunderbird to read mail, while also having the ability to remotely access mail via their webmail service, as needed. Unfortunately, their spam filtering was limited, the webmail interface only so-so and space was modest (250MB, which isn't that bad, really). That, and I have to use my ISP's outbound mail server, which isn't the best in the world.

Google's addition of IMAP will bring me back to using their service: I get large storage, fast delivery, can flag/unflag messages as spam from Thunderbird, label/folder messages from Thunderbird, threading messages (including sent messages!) into conversations with their excellent webmail interface (when I need to access mail remotely), and the secure connection to their SMTP server allows me to bypass my ISPs inadequate outbound mail server.

I'm just waiting for the rolling update to come around...

Posted by: Pete Stephenson | October 24, 2007 4:39 PM | Report abuse

And here I was worried that a blog post about competing e-mail protocols would get completely ignored...

One other point about the offline-access worry some people have raised: Any good IMAP client can also cache your messages, so you can read them and draft a reply even when you're offline.

(Guess what office's IMAP server just went offline? Guess which dumb reporter forgot to set Thunderbird to download messages in all of his folders, not just the inbox?)

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | October 24, 2007 4:43 PM | Report abuse

1. Yes
2. NA
3. Very

Posted by: Dave | October 24, 2007 5:20 PM | Report abuse

1. YES
2. NA
3. As much as I can.

I'm just waiting for them to provide calendar and contacts groupware compatibility to be fully happy!

Posted by: Luis | October 24, 2007 5:50 PM | Report abuse

1. Yes.
3. Very. Lack of IMAP is the main reason I haven't been using Gmail previously, so this may be the kick in the pants Google needed to give me to switch over.

Posted by: Jeff | October 24, 2007 8:20 PM | Report abuse

1. Yes.
2. NA
3. Interested, but not sure I'll use it. I like gmail's interface, especially with Gmail Notifier running in the taskbar. I don't think a local email client like Thunderbird is that much better. The one thing that might make it worth it is to be able to use Thunderbird's Address Book, because I don't care for Gmail's Contacts feature. But I don't know if that is enough for me to switch.

Posted by: James | October 24, 2007 9:54 PM | Report abuse



Don't recall hearing of it and yes, I will try it.

Every time I try to get Earthlink Mailbox to work with G-Mail, Earthlink's tech support throws up their hands and says ask G-Mail -- right, like G-Mail has dial up support.

G-Mail's POP Troubleshooter doesn't help either and comments that come up when one Googles Earthlink & G-Mail have never helped Earthlink's tech support, where its either too much, or 'outside of their support arena.'

Since Earthlink's Mailbox allows the files to be kept on my hard drive, I would like to use it again, but try to get Adobe Photoshop Starter Ed to recognize Earthlink Mailbox -- good luck.


Posted by: BRUCEREALTOR@GMAIL.COM | October 24, 2007 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Ars Technica printed a quote by Gmail Product Manager Keith Coleman about webmail services companies (like Google) being dependent upon advertising revenue from their web-based clients. He said, "We thought that was a trend worth breaking. Initial reaction has been great so far."

Posted by: Luke | October 24, 2007 10:47 PM | Report abuse

IMAP is available on my work account, but I deliberately chose POP because I don't want to synchronize my home machine. When I get work mail at home, I usually read and delete. I don't want to delete the message at work, but I do want to delete it at home.

Posted by: jones | October 24, 2007 11:27 PM | Report abuse

1. yes
2. N/A
3. uninterested

I do pretty much everything in a browser now (Gmail's Web site is great) and don't want to go backwards.

I'll be pleased when I can use Photoshop in a browser--that's pretty much the last local application I use (then Linux/Firefox will be perfect for everything).

Posted by: commenter999 | October 25, 2007 12:21 AM | Report abuse

Actually a web site called has been offering IMAP web based service for years, they also gave 10Mb of space when Yahoo and Hotmail were giving 2 and have been pioneers in many other aspects as well.

But having said that: 1, yes, 2 yes and 3 always yes

Posted by: Juan | October 25, 2007 9:50 AM | Report abuse

It's definitely a welcome change--IMAP is in every way preferable to POP--but when it comes down to it, I have yet to find a mail client that's better than GMail's web client (Thunderbird and Apple Mail just don't do it for me). I don't expect to use IMAP any time soon.

Posted by: Evan | October 25, 2007 10:45 AM | Report abuse

1) Yes
3) Nice to hear

I've been using FastMail for e-mail for several years now. IMAP with IDLE (for push e-mail on my Treo). While I know this will give FastMail a lot of competition (they are a small company, Google is huge), hopefully it will wake up more of the e-mail community into seeing how IMAP is valuable over POP. Too many companies seem to think it's no big deal.

Posted by: Louis | October 25, 2007 1:02 PM | Report abuse

I use POP access to GMail to download all my messages so that I have a local copy in case GMail deletes my account (as seemed to be happening about a year ago to some, even to those who weren't abusing the service).

This is handy if you have to lookup something in emails when offline. As I understand it IMAP wouldn't work for me- it would just allow me to access my email when online.

Posted by: josef | October 25, 2007 2:01 PM | Report abuse

I love IMAP. Unfortunately, RCN doesn't offer it, although they once did unofficially, but never implemented it.

If they did offer it, I'd jump at the opportunity.

...oh well!

Posted by: Northwest DC | October 25, 2007 2:38 PM | Report abuse

I don't know what all the fuss is about. I have used MSN email for years, and it does all this IMAP stuff you describe. I use MSN with Outlook Express on my home computer.

Posted by: polyman | October 25, 2007 4:30 PM | Report abuse

I agree:

Long overdue... and I am glad that they did this. It will make my sync tasks much easier.

1. Yes
2. NA
3. Very.

Posted by: Sameer | October 25, 2007 4:42 PM | Report abuse

1. no
2. yes, I set it up right after I read your post and am pleased so far. I like the fact that the emails can exist in Outlook on my laptop and still be accessible on the web from any other computer.

Posted by: Charlie | October 25, 2007 5:25 PM | Report abuse

You should also look at the outlook connector from hotmail, which gives MAPI functionality from outlook to hotmail, including calendar and task syncing. A write-up on that would be nice also.

Posted by: Mr. P | October 26, 2007 2:13 PM | Report abuse

This was available on Thunderbird many moons ago! Get with the program people.

Posted by: WhatDF? | October 29, 2007 12:42 PM | Report abuse

1- Yes
2- NA
3- When I was on the .Mac network that was IMAP based. However since switching to ONLY GMail, I have no need for PC/MAC based email. In fact I have uninstalled Outlook on my PC laptop, since it is a lightning rod for spam and malicious attacks. Apple's Mail program is useful, but a PIA to deal with. In reviewing the Leopard enhancements to Apple Mail, I don't see much improvement. Using GMail as my email client allows me to get my email anywhere I can find a browser. It also allows me to get email from other accounts. I have tried Yahoo! Mail in the past and found it to be lacking. GMail is far from perfect, put it certainly very close; for my needs anyway.

There are some users out there that were weaned on Outlook and use it for everything. If that fill your need, then this GMail enhancement is for you.

Posted by: Vinnie Boombots | October 29, 2007 1:12 PM | Report abuse

1 - yeahduh
2 - been using it for ages
3 - i don't use gmail. have own domain hosted w/ pair networks FTW.

Posted by: Errr... | October 30, 2007 9:48 AM | Report abuse

1. Yes
2. N/A
3. N/A...I've been using IMAP to connect to my AOL account from my PDA for a couple of months WAY better than the wireless sync provided by the carrier...and set-up on my phone PDA was a piece o' cake!

Posted by: Dave | October 30, 2007 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Well its about time, POP is junk. IMAP is a large improvement.

However it should be known here that Hotmail has had a the Outlook connector using Webdav and Deltasync that in my view is better than IMAP. Of course you need Outlook but for those that already do I think this is a better option for web mail.

Posted by: Barry | October 30, 2007 2:47 PM | Report abuse

1. Yes
2. N/A
3. Pleased. I installed right away, and like the way tags turn into folders. I am using MS Exchange with Outlook 2007, and IMAP is superior to the POP interface which was flaky within Outlook. If I could sync my calendar, contacts, t-odo in addition to email, I would ditch Exchange in a heartbeat. Alas, that is probably years away...

Posted by: Jeremy | October 30, 2007 9:44 PM | Report abuse

EWWWW!!!! Amazing!!!! POP3 is junk, and not even worth the frustration of using, IMAP was designed in 1986, and while it works for basic email its still junk. But since Google is doing this it must be pure gold huh? Garbage.

As Jeremy mentioned above without syncing of other data, calender, contacts, etc... all solutions are lacking. MS Exchange is still king of email, of course Exchange is just for "business" users. I think Microsoft should migrate Hotmail to Exchange and allow Outlook to attach to multiple Exchange servers. Oober email solution solved, and would leave GMail wondering what happened.

Posted by: Jeff | October 31, 2007 5:52 AM | Report abuse

1. Not realy
2&3 I have three accounts two are IMAP'ed the one I really want is not so might be last man on planet to get his account upgraded must be a prize for this??

Posted by: John | October 31, 2007 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Third account just went IMAP so what can I worry about now???

Posted by: John | October 31, 2007 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Is there a way to integrate the labeling feature of gmail(web) within the email client, for example click on a button and have it label your message, then have it "auto folder" your messages for you in your email client and web email when using IMAP?

Posted by: Richy | November 3, 2007 7:08 AM | Report abuse

The server has not been working well for me . It fails to recognize my password and / or account name several times daily , requiring annoying retyping of password / account name 3 or 4 times before it decides to work . Is the POP mail still an option ?

Posted by: Mike | November 20, 2007 11:49 PM | Report abuse

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