Google has slipped IMAP support into its GMail service, allowing users to manage their mail on the server and access it using different clients, with the status of their messages maintained.
IMAP is a vast improvement over POP3 - the more popular protocol for collecting email - though it seems GMail will continue to support both. The feature was reported by DownloadSquad, which says not all users have access to the functionality yet, though it is spreading.
Users can try logging off and reconnecting, or use the newly available help pages.
The POP3 user connects to the server, downloads their mail, and disconnects. Once they've downloaded their mail they can sort it into directories and see which messages they've read, or not. IMAP provides that same functionality, but on the server, so the user can create folders for their mail, read messages, and see the messages they've sent from any IMAP client.
Readers with long memories might recall using IMAP 10 years ago, when Netscape started supporting the protocol, and being delighted to see all their mail from anywhere without mucking about with synchronisation protocols or carrying a laptop around. But IMAP suffers from two drawbacks which have, until now, limited its deployment.
With IMAP all email is stored on the server, including sent mail, which can easily add up to several GB of data that ISPs (who used to run mail servers in the days before Hotmail) didn't want clogging up their servers. The other problem is that IMAP requires the user to remain connected, which back in the days of dial-up internet wasn't easy to arrange, but now is much less of a challenge.
So the clients and servers have supported IMAP for decades, and the space and connectivity have finally caught up with the protocol. The real question, therefore, is why it's taken Google so long, and how long it will take its competitors to catch up. ®