The solution was much easier than I'd thought it would be.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Gmail's 'IMAP' synchronizes your laptop and desktop e-mail

Feb. 17, 2008

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, The Post-Standard

   In my Feb. 3 column, I explained how my wife, Nancy, and I stayed connected around the clock, no matter where we were, on our most recent cross-country motor home jaunt. We used a wireless broadband modem and switched to Google's free Gmail system for all our e-mail.
   The Sprint wireless broadband modem, plugged into one of the USB ports on our laptops, gave us reasonably fast connections to the Internet and the Web, no matter where we were. It even worked while we were cruising down the Interstates. Our Apple laptops are able to share Internet connections with any other computers within wi-fi range, so both of us could be logged on at the same time using just one modem.
   Gmail gave us two huge advantages -- we could read and reply to e-mail on the road, and we got all our mail from the many e-mail accounts we have. You could think of it as a free auto-forwarding service, but it was even better. Instead of forwarding the mail -- creating bothersome attachments to every e-mail, in other words -- it redirected it. The mail from our other accounts came to us as if they had been sent to Gmail originally.
   But, alas, nothing's perfect. As much as we liked being able to get all our mail on the road, we had a major problem as soon as we got back home. When we got back to our "family" of home computers (two desktop Macs and two laptop Macs), we realized that our desktop Macs were ignorant of all the new e-mail we'd received over the eight weeks we'd been gone.
   Trying to do our e-mail on our home-bound desktop computers was out of the question, because they were missing two months of recent e-mails. While away, we had written to friends, of course, but we'd also paid bills, ordered merchandise and conducted our workshop business by e-mail -- the receipts and confirmations were stored in mail folders -- and it was essential that all our computers have up-to-date e-mail.
   It was a problem that had to be solved. The solution was much easier than I'd thought it would be.
   We switched our Gmail accounts from POP to IMAP. Let me explain the jargon.
   POP ("post office protocol") is the standard way of doing mail. If you already use Gmail but have to go to the Google Web site to do it, you're actually not taking advantage of POP mail at all. POP mail lets you handle all your mail through your computer's mail software. (Yes, Gmail can be done that way. See www.technofileonline.com/texts/tec101605.html.)
   What matters most about the way POP mail works is that you keep all your incoming mail and copies of all your sent mail on your computer. It stays with the computer that gets the mail.
   Uh-oh. We needed a different method. We needed a way to see our received mail from any computer. We needed to be able to access mail sent from the laptop when we did our mail on the desktop computer, too.
   And that's what IMAP does. This "Internet Message Access Protocol" doesn't store mail on a personal computer. It stores all your mail on the mail server. No matter how you access your mail, whether from your laptop, your desktop computer or a borrowed computer while your visiting your in-laws, you have all your stored mail, all your sent mail and all the notes you've kept, if you do as we do and make notes out of draft messages (ones you write but simply store in a "Drafts" folder).
   There's another advantage, too. If you have a "smartphone" like the iPhone, you can access the same e-mail from your cell phone. Everything is always accessible, no matter how you access your mail.
   The change has made a huge difference to us. I can now read and write mail on my laptop in a waiting room. When I get home and run the mail program on my desktop computer, everything I did on the laptop shows up on my desktop computer.
   To get a Gmail account, go to mail.google.com. To change your already existing Gmail account to POP or IMAP, open your Gmail Web page and click "Settings" at the top, then click "Forwarding and POP/IMAP" on the "Settings" page.