Email. Such a simple word. And it seems like such a simple concept. Mail that gets delivered, electronically. Brilliant!
So why does it seem to cause us so much frustration and headache? Why can’t email just be as simple as it sounds?
The complexity comes in the fact that electronic emails are ethereal and disembodied from any physical medium. With “snail mail” in the physical world, if you want to share a card that you get (with ZERO electronic sharing), you physically show it to someone. You could make a physical copy of the email and hand it out in person or mail it out to a list of friends, paying for the copies and the postage and the additional envelopes to send it in. But duplicating that physical mail item and distributing it takes a lot of effort, material, and cost.
Now, think about email. You receive an email and you notice that someone important on it was not copied. So you click forward, type in an address and send. Boom! One copy of the message has been created and shared. What if it’s a funny email (appropriate humor only!) and you want to share it with your friends? You can quickly forward it to an email LIST and Boom! 10 new copies of the email exist, or 50, or 100! Instantly that email can feasibly be read across the globe!
Now, adding to the ease of just forwarding multiple copies of an email, let’s think about our work flow and the modern “productivity practices” we engage in.
I check my email on my work laptop, but I also check it on my phone. Further, I have a desktop computer at my home office that I frequently use as well, and I check my email on it. While I COULD just look my email up “on the Internet” using a web browser—which is essentially just looking the emails up “on the email server” (think “looking at your physical mail right at the post office!)–I use a software program called “Outlook” for the features it provides in sorting and managing the many emails I receive from FireSpike’s many clients and vendors. I have Outlook installed on my desktop computer AND on my laptop.
If email were delivered JUST like physical mail, then when I opened Outlook on my LAPTOP, all the email would be delivered from the server (from the “post office”) to my laptop. In this scenario, if I later used my desktop computer to then check my email (asking for my mail at the post office), the server (the “postal clerk”) would tell me all the mail had already been picked up and was therefore no longer available. Bummer for my desktop, and now I can’t look at all that mail that I want to read.
But, as I’ve already shown, email can be copied and sent over and over without one losing the “original” copy. And so, an email server can KEEP the stored original and send out copies to all of the devices I want to read my email on. This saves me a bunch of trouble, as I have copies of all my email on any device I happen to be using at the time. PLUS, I can still just peek at the email using a web browser, seeing my email right up on the server where it is all centrally stored and managed.
And that comparison between physical mail delivery and copying emails is the main point of this story, and provides the foundation for me to share and explain two email terms that it is useful to understand: POP3 and IMAP.
You can access your email from an email server using one of two different techniques: POP3 or IMAP.
POP3 generally acts like a physical post office. When you request your email, the POP3 setting tells the server to act like the email is real mail: it delivers the email to you and then removes the copy of the email from the server–just as if it had “physically” delivered you the email. The email then no longer exists on the server. If you want to check your email from a different device, the email that was delivered to the first device is no longer “at the post office” for you to pick it up. You can think of this as “Pop! It’s gone!” The email lives on the device it was first downloaded to, but then is gone from the server, for good.
IMAP works with all the benefits of “electronic” delivery. Emails are COPIED to local devices, and “mapped” between each device they exist on. You can have the same emails on a laptop, a desktop computer, your phone, and still up on the server itself. The “mapping” works in both directions, too. If you delete an email on your laptop, the IMAP setting then also deletes the email on the server, and the server passes on the information to the other devices that you deleted that email, and it gets deleted from those as well. Every device connected via IMAP “maps” out the content of your email box and shares that with all the other devices.
(This makes it sound like IMAP is “better” than POP3, but they’re just two different ways of dealing with email. If you will ONLY ever be looking at your email from an email client software like Outlook using just a single device, then POP3 can be quicker and causes less load on the server, so it does have its advantages in that way.)
IMPORTANT NOTE! The most important thing to remember when using multiple devices to connect with the same email account is to set ALL of them to IMAP – so all of the devices “map out” the emails between each other, and nothing goes “pop”. (I.e., make sure none of the devices is set to use POP3, meaning that device will download all the emails, then delete them from the server – making all the IMAP devices ALSO delete all the emails!
So hopefully this explanation makes the idea of emails and how our email software retrieves them a bit easier to understand–and we can keep things from going “pop!” by using IMAP if we get our email using more than one device!