Webmail Is The Only Way

Email montage

The development of email. Where is it heading?

What's the most used application on your computer? Well, assuming you have broadband internet access it's your browser. OK, let me start again... What's the thing you use the web for the most? Well, Facebook perhaps, YouTube, checking the stock market, eBay or maybe you're a porn junkie. Anyway, whatever your favourite pursuit, unless you're a disorganised teenager who can't string together more than 1 sentence, I'll bet email isn't too far behind.

A decade ago most people had a dedicated email client, separate from their browser, such as Outlook, Eudora or The Bat. Most of these clients used the POP3 protocol and downloaded all emails to their hard disk, where they stayed until they were deleted, moved, lost when you reinstalled Windows or bought a new machine or written over for good when you had to reformat the drive. Of course it was possible to back up your emails and import them into a new system or client, but only proper geeks bothered with that.

These single purpose clients were fast and powerful but they could be tricky for the non-geek to set up and when they stopped working the non-geek had no idea what to do next. Furthermore, they could be buggy and even a past card carrying ACM member such as I was known to rant and rage against the idiot software. Still, one could always move on, and I did find Thunderbird to be pretty much all I wanted...

But technology must needs march inexorably onward, and what was fine yesterday is obsolete tomorrow. First there was Hotmail and then Gmail. Email was suddenly browser based and cloud stored. You didn't need to set it up, you just needed a password and an account and you were up and running. No need to worry about losing your precious emails, they back it up for you. No need to worry about buggy systems, Microsoft and Google keep their servers running sweet, all you need to do is supply the browser. And it was free!

I resisted the pull of course. I'm a geek and I want MY data on MY hard disk. I want to access my email in the manner that I want with the tool that I choose! OK. Thunderbird it was. They had an idiot backup program that couldn't be relied upon but that's ok, you could simply copy the data directory into storage and copy the whole thing back when you needed it. Now that really did work! Cludgy perhaps but easy to do and rock solid.

Multiple convergent devices put a stop to data storage on one localised hard disk. Your mobile phone ain't gonna communicate with your home PC when you're out of town and there's the end of it! Damn! And I thought I had just got it all sorted...

Nuclear Explosion

So much for that system...

Ok, there is now no alternative to a cloud based email repository, fine, let's look at the options:

So there you have 6 places to store your emails on the cloud, but what's all the obsession with using a webmail client? Why not leave the stuff up there and just read the emails you want with a stand alone IMAP client? Ummm, have you ever tried using an IMAP client? Quite frankly IMAP is a disaster! Let's assume that you have a large number of emails in a complex hierarchical system of folders. If you synchronise all the folders your client will be FOREVER talking to the cloud, checking and synchronising all those folders. Absolutely unworkable! Everyone who tries to use IMAP notices this. You have to wonder how such stupidity came to market. There must have been significant user testing before it was released. How could they miss it???? If you turn off the syncro on all those folders you won't be able to see all those stored emails... You just have to shake your head at the fuckwits who brought this in...


Now who could have thought up IMAP?

Incidentally, I found that turning off the syncro on my Opera client turned off the syncro on RoundCube so that I thought all my folders had been deleted! Now honestly folks: that kind of functionality is COMPLETELY INSANE!!!

Another problem with IMAP is that everything exists twice. You have to download your email text and attachments before you can read them and you have to upload the same before you can send them. This lengthens the mailing process.

Webmail may be less responsive and less sexy than Outlook or Thunderbird but it has some great advantages over those fast POP and IMAP clients:

Yes, the death knell has sounded for standalone email clients. IMAP has been a last desperate attempt to avoid the inevitable but it is bad data storage theory and doesn't really work.

Push mail looks like a solution, especially for small convergent devices that don't have the screen real estate to implement a full scale browser, but I'm afraid it has been hijacked by rogues and idiots. The ideal solution here is a mobile app supplied by your cloud host. Gmail provide such an app but they are verboten. It is unlikely that RoundCube or SquirrelMail or any other volunteer vendor will produce such an app for Symbian or iPhone in the foreseeable future but one can always hope. In the meantime, the only answer for small screen cell phones is to make the best you can of your supplied IMAP client. Sad, but that's life in the free market.

Having decided on a webmail solution and ruled out using either of the great data mining giants and assuming you don't want to pay extra your choice is either your ISP or your webhost. If you have a webhost it's a no brainer that you will go with them. You then have a choice of various clients of varying functionality and attractiveness. My host offers Squirrel Mail, RoundCube and The Horde.

Personally I like RoundCube: it's open source, not too shabby and is constantly being improved.

One final thought on the matter of how to backup your thousands of emails acquired over the years. You can backup any cloud storage email repository to your local hard disk by installing an IMAP client and synchronising ALL the folders. You can then store the data as you wish (provided you know where the client puts it). This DOES work, but it is tiresome and one is always in doubt as to whether the syncro REALLY got all the emails... If you use your webhost you can simply go into the file manager and copy the lot straight down to Earth! Simple!

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Warren Mars - July 17, 2010