Backup Considerations 1: Using IMAP with Outlook 2010

There is no doubt that Microsoft Outlook has had an impact upon the average business user.  Yes, there are other alternatives, but Outlook is feature rich and really is more of a PIM than an email client.  You can get your email messages, calendar, contacts and notes all under one roof.  Outlook 2010 brings even more improvements to the fore with the ability to remove duplicate emails and its handling of IMAP.

However, Outlook 2010, as does its predecessors, does not come without warts.  Knowing them beforehand can save a lot of frustration (or money if you decide to go with another client).

Why Internet Message Access Protocol

What is IMAP?  Many are familiar with the POP3 protocol for receiving email, if for no other reason than having to know that is what they are using to receive it when they setup Outlook.  IMAP stands for Internet Message Access Protocol and the main difference between it and POP is that IMAP message changes on the client reflect message changes on the server and vice versa.  POP simply pulls (“pops” if you will) the message off the server stack and sends it to the client.  Under normal circumstances, the message is removed from the server, but you can alter this behavior.  IMAP messages, though, are not deleted by simply downloading the message.  Furthermore, if the message is moved on the client, say to a folder, then the server will try to replicate this.  If the message is removed from the message store on the client, then it will be removed on the server.

In effect, IMAP tries to mirror activities on the client on the server and vice versa, whereas POP only attempts to download new messages to the client.  That’s somewhat of an oversimplification of the differences perhaps, but hopefully it is sufficient to make clear the main difference between the two.  You can, however, read the gory details about it on the Wikipedia article “Internet Message Access Protocol” if you are so inclined.

What this means is:

  1. You can have multiple clients connected and the changes will be reflected on all of the clients during the next sync.  These clients may be mobile devices or stationary desktops, as the email server will not care.
  2. Since you can have multiple clients, this is a very attractive option if you have a reception area, administrative assistant or other who also reads and handles the email.
  3. Even if you only have one client, if that client crashes, you still have your email intact on the server.

This last point is the one I particularly want to focus in on.  While IMAP has usually been the domain of the road warrior or the one who needs to share a company email inbox, it is also advantageous as a means of having a backup should the client fail.

Anyone who has tried to backup Outlook PST files knows the pain.  Locating them can be a pain, and they are next to impossible to backup without shutting down Outlook and all plug-ins.  If you have any sync utility, that can affect backups as well.  If you have emails spanning a significant length of time, then you can expect any backups to span some time as well, and you may or may not be able to use Outlook during those backups depending upon the method chosen.  IMAP gets around this by syncing up with a central server.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind, though.  First off, what you are really doing when working with an IMAP client is working with a cached copy of your email account.  Since it is a cache and not an email store, it may not be complete at any given moment.  Thus, losing access to the server may mean some emails will not be available.  Second, you obviously need to ensure that your email is being hosted on a reliable server through a reliable service company.  In a sense, IMAP was part of the so-called cloud even before the term “cloud” was invented.

Some of this can be mitigated by moving emails to offline folders, but then that sort of defeats the purpose of leaving messages on the server to begin with.  In spite of it all, I think IMAP is still superior if you must share email between devices and/or users.

What IMAP Won’t Give You

You need to remember, though, IMAP is an email protocol.  It will not solve all of your sync’ing needs.  It will not sync up your contacts, your calendar or your notes.  If you need to keep those in sync, I still recommend 4Team’s excellent Sync2 utility, especially if you are using Google.  Of course, you can also use it to keep emails in sync as well, although my experience with that end of it is that it can get easily tripped up, and that function requires access from a local area network (LAN) rather than from the cloud.

Alternatively, you can pay for Google Apps and use those synchronization tools to keep calendar and contacts both in sync (Google Calendar Sync is free but doesn’t do your contacts).  If you simply have Outlook and a smartphone, though, it probably came with ActiveSync, iTunes or some other synchronization program.

Why Outlook

With that last issue, you might be wondering, “Why Outlook, then?”  Indeed, if you aren’t interested in contacts, calendars and notes, then you might be better off with the free Mozilla Thunderbird.  I cannot speak from personal experience, seeing as it has been several years since I set it up and looked at it, but from what I understand it is a very capable email client which avoids at least one of the major warts that Outlook 2010 has when using IMAP.

I got used to using Outlook because most businesses use Outlook.  It truly gets tiring going between two different programs that behave differently.  When you connect remotely to get your email, you are usually better off with an Outlook client anyhow, especially if they are using a Microsoft Exchange server.

I should interject here that there are some companies that still use Lotus Notes, which has its own form of email.  Why they are still using it, I don’t know.  It’s a terrible system.  Lotus has been sold and rebought so many times that anything good they ever had has long been screwed up.  More to the point, they are now owned by IBM, so need I say more?  Just say “No” to Lotus Notes.

After getting use to Outlook, though, it really does have some nice features.  I have contacts that I’ve been able to update over the years and carry with me from machine to machine.  It is helpful to have birthdays, anniversaries, etc., that remind you of these important dates.  Even if not on Exchange, you can still send invites to people over the Internet and if they have Outlook, they can accept the invitation to have it put on their calendar.

Perhaps you’ve used Outlook 2003 or earlier with IMAP and have been disappointed.  You had to do extra steps to have something deleted, for example.  Outlook 2010 has improved a lot with IMAP, it turns out.

However, it still is not wart free.

Why Not Outlook

The biggest puzzlement ever is the integrated Inbox, or should I say the lack thereof.  If you have multiple IMAP email accounts and you use an iPhone (or Thunderbird on a PC I am told), then you have an “All Inboxes” which will show you email from all of your inboxes.  This can be a handy feature if you want separate accounts for any reason (say, to separate business email from personal email).

Now, if you are using POP3, you can pop all of your email into the same PST file, but Outlook forces the separate files for each account, and when you remember that each is a cache of what is sitting on the server in separate accounts, then you realize why you cannot do it that way.  There are kludges and workarounds, but all of them either end up duplicating email or worse require moving the messages outside of the IMAP folders which makes IMAP useless at that point.

Obviously, this isn’t that big of a deal if you only have one active email account.  Perhaps the majority of the people fall into that category.  However, what if you start looking for a job?  There can be valid reasons for wanting a different email address.  Perhaps looks more professional than  Maybe you just got that personal account and want to protect it from spam and so you setup a second.  There are lots of reasons one may wish to have more than one email account setup in Outlook, and the idea that all these mobile devices can do it while Outlook cannot is pretty absurd.

Another issue is one of reminder flags.  Yes, you can flag an email message for follow-up later, but you cannot set a remind on it.  The official response is that IMAP does not support such a flag.  Again, we are approaching ludicrous here.  No one is asking the IMAP server to support reminders!  To put it another way, POP3 does not support reminders either!  It would seem very logical, however, to support that on the client end.  Each message should have a unique ID attached to it, and regardless of where the message is, Outlook should be able to track it and pop up a reminder when needed.

As they say, this ain’t rocket science here.  These are certainly among those “what were they thinking?” items.

And yet, these aren’t necessarily deal breakers, although they might be for some.  For one thing, if you keep an extraordinarily clean Inbox anyhow, then you will see there are unread items in one of them.  Follow up flags can be done via a task list or calendar reminder instead.  Some of these involve more steps, but they can be workable.  Whether or not it overcomplicates things, though, will certainly be an individual choice.

One more thing that is worthy of consideration is that some claim that Outlook 2007/2010 clients are slower than other IMAP clients.  Whether or not this is perception isn’t clear to me at this point in time, but there are things you can do to speed it up somewhat.

Setting Up IMAP

I’m not going to duplicate the already existing hundreds of instructions about setting up an IMAP account under Outlook 2010, but I’ll instead provide pointers.  A generic explanation for those sites that can do automatic configuration is given in the Microsoft Outlook Blog article “Better IMAP in Outlook 2010”.  If your particular provider doesn’t provide automatic configuration, then they will usually post instructions under their “Help” section somewhere on how to setup IMAP (note: there actually are some providers still in the 1990s who do not provide this!  My suggestion is to find one that does if that is the case.).

If using Gmail, the most popular IMAP server out there, then the How-To Geek has posted an article on how you can “Add Your Gmail Account to Outlook 2010 Using IMAP”.  In addition, Google itself gives some “Recommended IMAP client settings” that you might want to pay attention to.  In addition, you should go into your Gmail settings online and look at the folders you are subscribed to, and make sure “All Mail” is unchecked.  You will also want to ensure you aren’t giving multiple labels to any emails.  What happens is that Gmail uses labels instead of actual folders, so Outlook will actually make multiple copies of the email to place them into, including the All Mail folder.  Also, you can refer to the below video which can give even more hints as to some ways to speed things up.

Hopefully, these tips will give you the security and convenience you need for your email.