E-mail standard gains steam

The Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) is a mechanism for getting information about your e-mail, or the messages themselves, from a corporate mail server.

This e-mail protocol lets users dial in to an Internet server from a remote location and review the headings and senders of their e-mail before choosing to download that mail from the server.

With IMAP, users access messages as though they were stored locally, when in fact that e-mail may be manipulated on a server miles away.

Because it has that remote capability, IMAP is most likely to be adopted by corporate users who see roaming features as important, says Paul Hoffman, director of the Santa Cruz, California-based Internet Mail Consortium, an industry group made up of vendors and users.

ACCESS IS KEY

"Roaming users want to leave their messages, mostly, on the server. They want to be able to go to someone else's terminal and read mail and have access to older messages," Hoffman says. IMAP lets them do that.

IMAP is different from another E-mail access protocol, Post Office Protocol (POP), which stores all messages on a server. Users dial in to the server, and POP plops the messages into their in-box. It then deletes that mail from the server.

Both protocols have been around for more than 10 years.

Ron Rassner, an analyst at Creative Networks Inc. in Palo Alto, California, says the main difference between POP (currently in Version 3.0) and IMAP (currently in Version 4.0) is that POP3 offers users little control over their messages.

IMAP gives users an intelligent e-mail store from which to review messages before downloading them - that includes choosing whether to download file attachments. Users can apply mail filters and search agents on the server. And messages can be picked up from any machine, anywhere, Rassner says.

But vendors have interpreted the ambiguous IMAP4 specification in different ways, which has led to inconsistencies among mail clients and servers, Rassner says. For example, users may not be able to read an attachment in a Netscape Mail file in the Eudora Pro e-mail program.

But Rassner anticipates IMAP will gain steam in the next few years - a sort of inevitability as the protocol evolves. And those incompatibilities among vendors will be ironed out, he says.

"POP3 will never go away, but we might see multiserver capabilities coming our way that can handle both," Rassner says.

SIDEBAR: IMAP Definition

The Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) provides a series of commands that the mail client software and server use to trade information. It's a method for end users to access their e-mail or bulletin board messages from a corporate mail server. It lets a client E-mail program -- such as Netscape Mail, Qualcomm's Eudora, Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook -- pull remote messages from a server as easily as if they were stored on a local hard drive.

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