The Email Report: Those Broken IMAP Installations

March 7th, 2012

When it comes to setting up an email account on your Mac or PC, it ought to be a pretty painless process. Just enter your username, password and incoming and outgoing server information. Your email software, whether Mail for the Mac, Outlook for Mac or Windows, or any of a number of similar apps, ought to be able to figure out the rest without manual intervention.

Only they can’t.

Now if you’re not into the POP versus IMAP thing, here are the basics: When you set up a POP (short for Post Office Protocol) email account, your messages are stored to your personal computer or mobile device. This device-centric scheme can present problems when you want to check your Inbox and Sent messages on different devices. Incoming email may be retrieved all over again, if it’s still on the server; sent messages won’t be there. POP is not the ideal solution if you plan to, for example, send and receive email on both a Mac and an iPhone or a Windows PC and a Droid.

The other popular method is IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) that, in essence, stores your messages on the email server, which it’s run by your ISP, your Web host, or by you. That way, you can use pretty much any email client to access your messages and, when properly configured (important!), your messages will be in sync regardless of which device you want to use.

Now none of this matters so much if you just use Webmail for everything. If you take that route, it doesn’t matter what protocol you’re using, since you’ll always be managing your email from the same app, Web-based, regardless of the device. But some Webmail systems just don’t work very well on a mobile computer. Even if there’s a mobile version, it may be feature limited, and you’ll have, at best, rudimentary flexibility in managing your messages.

All well and good, until you’re ready to add accounts to your email software, particularly IMAP. The first part of the process seems simple enough, where you enter your login information, plus the names of the email servers. Supposedly a properly designed email client will test the settings, and decide such arcane factors as whether SSL is on or off, or the proper email authentication method. Usually they do, particularly for Gmail or iCloud email, so you shouldn’t fret unless something goes wrong. Then you’ll want to see if there are any instructions from your email service, or your employer’s IT people, on how to set things up.

But once the installation is done, you may find that something’s wrong. Your Sent messages, for example, aren’t being stored on the server; they are left on your computing device. What’s wrong?

Now in setting up a Gmail or Google Apps account on my iPhone or iPad, I didn’t run into this problem, but it usually exists for email clients on a desktop computer. After the account setup, you have to “map” your local folders to the ones on the IMAP server. They aren’t always labeled the same either. On some systems Sent is really Sent Items or Sent Messages. Junk may be Spam or Bulk. You get the picture.

With Apple Mail, this folder mapping is done via a feature labeled Use This Mailbox For… in the Mailbox menu. Just select the appropriate IMAP folder, and pick the corresponding mailbox to properly associate the two. From then on, the message folders on your Mac will mirror the ones on the server.

Under Outlook for Windows, there’s a Folders tab under Internet E-mail Settings where you choose which folder contains your “sent items.”

This email folder routine isn’t hard to do. In a minute or two, you’ll be all set. But sometimes you have to let the newly configured account go through a couple of email retrieval cycles before all the proper folders appear on your computer.

The real problem is that this extra setup process is often overlooked by many of you simply because it’s not obvious, not part of a Setup Assistant. You have to know about it, for otherwise, you won’t be able to take advantage of the best features of IMAP. But you have to wonder why email clients can’t figure out all this automatically. Is it really that hard for these apps to scan the names of the server’s email folders and find appropriate equivalents? Sure, maybe there’s a variation they wouldn’t account for, but the default settings should cover most email systems.

Now maybe you don’t care about any of this. You aren’t concerned if your computers have different messages in the Inbox or the Sent mailbox, since you rarely recheck older email. But if you have any interest at all in keeping your stuff in sync, don’t you wonder why the email apps you’re using can’t sort this out by themselves?

I wonder too. An automatic IMAP mailbox mapping capability seems to be way off the radar. Even Mail for Mountain Lion doesn’t offer such a feature, and mapping folders on Outlook for the Mac is endlessly broken. In my experience, Outlook seems to create bogus folders, and map mailboxes to them rather than the ones on the server.

But the most important question of all is whether anyone cares. Clearly the folks who design email clients for the Mac and Windows aren’t paying much attention. If anyone knows of some worthy exceptions, do let me know. On the other hand, once the setup is done, you won’t have to visit it again unless or until you want to add yet another email account.

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6 Responses to “The Email Report: Those Broken IMAP Installations”

  1. Polimon Design says:

    You have done a great job of describing the problem. I agree. It is inexcusable that 21st century operating systems still leave this up to the end user, who in most cases has no idea what to do. One would think that at least Apple would get it right, out of their concern for user experience; “It just works,” and all that. I am a highly skilled Photoshop user, and a moderately skilled Mac tech, who ends up fixing Macs for friends quite a bit. I promise you, they will never be able to grasp the POP vs IMAP issue, let alone configure an IMAP account. I’d like to see Apple step up and take responsibility for this archaic, unnecessary mess.

  2. Red C says:

    Hear hear! As a consultant I see this all the time. Why didn’t the IMAP Standard include a standard name for the Sent folder? Each mail client and mail hosts seems to go their own way.

    • @Red C, After writing the article, I spent a short amount of time configuring a standard IMAP account with Windows LIVE Mail. Same problem as the Mac version of Outlook; it creates bogus folders rather than properly analyze the ones already established for an account. It’s just dumb!


  3. Fabrice says:

    Thanks for the explanation; now I don’t feel so bad that my sent messages appear in 3 different folders on a single IMAP account.

    The computer guru who introduced me to the Mac (1986) said that unexplained functions were Apple’s way to maintain the air of intuitiveness.

  4. desertman says:

    Great explanation! I never really understood this before (probably don’t understand it even now 100%).

    Whats missing here is how to “un-map” folders in Apple Mail. Is there a way to do this?

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