We have email, so what is IMAP and POP3? A recently as five years ago client correspondence was still very formal, conducted on paper letterheads and sent by snail mail. Today, the majority of client communication takes place by email. We seldom stop to think about how email actually works and the impact it has on our professional activities.  The information below is intended to provide  technical information on email as a unique technology and provide some thoughts its use and implementation.

Email has its origin in the early days of the internet, before Instant Messaging (WhatsApp, Telegram) was possible, and long before multimedia sharing (Instagram, TikTok) was even a possibility. The purpose of email was to deliver text messages between remote users. Originally email’s development followed a course which imitated that of snail mail, for which it was named. The sender created a message and sent it out using the Standard Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), sending it from the senders outbox to a internet server. Later the recipient would log on and download messaged using the Post Office Protocol (currently POP3). Over time these protocols evolved, but retain one common feature – email lives only in one location at a time, on the server, or the Inbox. Once an email was downloaded, it only existed in the Inbox where it was downloaded. A different approach was introduced by the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP). This protocol allowed email to live on the server indefinitely and the same could be accessed by multiple users, on multiple devices. This is what made reading email on the office PC, laptop and mobile devices convenient.

In order to compose, send and read these messages special software was created called an email client.  Early browser based clients included yahoo.com and Netscape Mail (now AOL). Today, the most popular web based client is probably Gmail by Google. Web based email clients rely heavily on IMAP and have achieved extensive user acceptance, but effective shared Inboxes and collaboration remains elusive.

It is important to distinguish where email is stored, and where it is read. Email messages reside on cloud servers, until they are downloaded. If downloaded using POP3, they no longer exist on the cloud server, and only exist in the local mailbox to which they were downloaded. If downloaded using IMAP, only a copy of the message is downloaded and the same message remains on the server to be read by other clients. The email client is the software that allows sending, receiving and reading email. Gmail’s client is a browser based interface. The Outlook client is an app. The method used to communicate between then the client and the mail server is SMTP/POP3 or IMAP protocol. It is no surprise that combinations using Outlook, IMAP and Exchange servers, or Gmail dominate  the email environment. 

Downloaded local email client apps, like Microsoft Outlook remain dominant in business market. Several factors contribute to this position, not least of which is that Outlook can use the IMAP protocol, and with a Microsoft Exchange Server, a shared Inbox and team work and collaboration is facilitated, leading to increases in productivity. Email remains central to most business applications, regardless of which type of office software suite you use. Although there are other email client apps, such as Thunderbird and eM Client, Outlook has several outstanding features which gives it an advantage and is hard to equal.

Office 365 expands on this best-of-both-worlds concept, with a local app and cloud based data.

Firstly, Outlook forms part of the Microsoft Office suite, including Word and Excel. This means that easy integration between Outlook and other Office components is a given. When using other Office Suite products, such as LibreOffice or Google Drive, these all suffer the primary handicap of not including a native email client app.

Secondly, Outlook allows for extensive integration both internally (Calendar, Tasks etc) and also with third party software, allowing custom Outlook solutions. Building on a stack of an Outlook Exchange Server, using the Outlook client app with IMAP, and a custom, third party add-in, Outlook can provide highly customized, automated solutions to a wide range of business specific issues. Imagine a system notification that an event has just occurred on a matter, or an automatically updated log of email sent and received. 

With the possibility of a Third Wave and another strict #lockdown on the horizon, it is important to consider mobility and flexibility when it comes to business software. Sending and Receiving email is not enough. This means that integration and collaboration should be key considerations when decisions are made on software purchases. It is not enough to simply be able to send and receive email, these functions should integrate seamlessly into our operational activities. A legal practice relies on email only for communication, it also requires document storage and billing capability. A sound solution will provide for most of these needs.




Carl Holliday is an attorney specialising in practice management and compliance.



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