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IMAP: The road to nowhere?

Post Office Protocol (POP) may dominate the Exchange and Domino messaging worlds today, but the rarely used Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) has many more features. Will POP's bubble burst soon? Not likely, according to an expert.

If it's not broken, don't fix it. That is the mantra Domino and Exchange administrators have held to in the IMAP versus POP debate.

While Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) dominates Post Office Protocol (POP) as a more functional set of rules for accessing e-mail on a server, POP has remained the more popular of the two enterprise messaging protocols.

The reason could be in POP's timely emergence on the e-mail scene. POP, a client/server protocol in which e-mail is received and held by an Internet server, was already a vendor standard by the mid-1980s.

IMAP, which allows a client e-mail program to access remote message stores as if they were local, was not developed until 1986. Messaging vendors did not consider it as a mainstream protocol for another ten years.

IMAP's functionalities are far superior to POP's, yet, only 2% of business users and .1% of consumers use IMAP, according to San Francisco, Calif.-based Ferris Research.

David Ferris, president of Ferris Research, said greater functionality, collaboration, shared folders and increased user accessibility have not made IMAP a standout messaging protocol. Ferris said IMAP has not gained momentum because "POP came out first and administrators see no need to change."

The functionality landscape

IMAP allows for e-mail to be accessed from any workstation, said Ferris. Transferring messages or files back and forth between workstations, home computers and laptops is not necessary using IMAP. In other words, whether using a home desktop, office workstation or mobile laptop, users can view their messages.

Conversely, POP is best used for single computer access. Messages are downloaded to the computer and then deleted from the mail server. Thus, users are restricted to one computer. POP "is just an inbox," said Ferris, and doesn't have the structure IMAP does.

IMAP's structure is a hierarchical message store, which allows e-mails to be stored in folders. "Folders can contain folders to the nth degree," said Ferris. That format allows collaboration. For example, folder sharing may be IMAP's "in" to increased popularity, he said.

"Shared folders are where groups of people with a common interest can share a place to dump messages and files," according to Ferris Research. Shared folder technology needs standard access protocols for people working in different organizations. Users can use their clients of choice to access them.

Web-based e-mail access is where POP has a leg up on IMAP. Web browsers are a threat to IMAP, Ferris said.

"End users like using a browser, and they don't need a standard protocol like IMAP to talk to the workstation," Ferris said.

A fork in the road

POP-based e-mail can be accessed via a Web browser, according to Mark Crawford, a network design specialist. The caveat to using POP, though, is that "messages are not downloaded and therefore never deleted," Crawford said.

Crawford, who works at Keystone Health Plan Central, a health care insurance provider in Camp Hill, Penn., has used IMAP on his Microsoft Exchange network since 1998. His company chose IMAP over POP for two reasons.

Said Crawford, "We wanted centralized access and storage of mail. We also wanted to provide a foundation for collaborative processing. IMAP fulfilled both these requirements."

Collaboration is the biggest benefit Crawford gets from IMAP. For example, Crawford can view another employee's calendar to see if he or she will be available for a meeting.

"I can then schedule the meeting and even reserve the room where it will be held," Crawford said. If Keystone's mail were POP-based, he said, additional processes that publish calendars would be necessary. More software that "ultimately mimics the functionality of IMAP" might even be needed, said Crawford.

Crawford does admit more space is needed for mail when using IMAP because client machines do not need to download e-mail. Yet, he is happy with Keystone's choice.

Don't be on the lookout for an IMAP comeback either, Ferris said. POP may not be as full-featured and "modern" as IMAP, but it does the trick, he said. That is, POP provides a means to an end for users to read e-mail. IMAP was never here in the first place because, simply put, "POP has been good enough."


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What's the weakest link in messaging? Find out in searchWindowsManageability's New & Analysis: The weakest link in messaging: The votes are in!

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