Hands-on with Gmail's new IMAP support

Gmail is getting support for IMAP clients like Outlook, Thunderbird, and the iPhone. This means that Gmail users will no longer limited to the Gmail.com user interface or to the weak integration they can get from clients using the much more rudimentary POP email protocol.

There's no word on the official rollout schedule for IMAP support. Some users have it, some don't. I do. Don't ask me why. To see if you have support, click on the "Settings" link and then see if you have a "Forwarding and POP/IMAP" tab.

Why does this matter? Because IMAP is a two-way email protocol. IMAP client applications can interact with IMAP servers, like Gmail's, so data on both sides stays in sync. If you have multiple IMAP client apps, they'll all show the same email messages (including indicating which messages have been read) as long as they stay connected. However, Gmail handles email differently from most standard email client software, so the integration will take getting used to. For example, if you move a message from one folder to another in your desktop email client (like Outlook or Thunderbird), the message's label in Gmail will change to match -- since Gmail doesn't have folders, per se. Google's IMAP behavior chart lists the differences.

With IMAP support in your email client, Gmail's labels become folders.

Gmail's automatic message threading (where it groups messages with the same subject line) also doesn't translate to IMAP, although some client applications may offer their own threading features.

I think it's great to have rich client-side support for Web-based email, and vice versa for that matter (example: Outlook Web Access). However, Gmail's native interface is so weird that there's no client I know of that's a good match for it. It is very nice to be able to access more of Gmail's features from a real desktop client, but it requires a bit more of a mental context switch than I think most people will want to deal with. I tried using Gmail from Outlook, and I didn't like it. That's partly because Outlook's IMAP handling is quirky, but also because it's so different from Gmail's native interface. What would be more useful, I think, would be an offline Gmail interface using Google Gears.

Also, it's worth noting that the IMAP support is one-way: You can use IMAP clients to read and send your Gmail. You cannot use the Gmail interface to access email from non-Google IMAP servers or from Exchange. The only non-Google email servers that Gmail can access are POP machines, and you don't get any mailbox synchronization with that method.

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