Gmail and IMAP: nice so far but far from perfect

GmailimapmacmailNow that I’ve have IMAP enabled in Gmail for 36 hours, I can revisit my whole experiment of possibly leaving Exchange. From what I’ve seen so far (strictly from a mail perspective), Exchange continues to be the better experience. That’s not to say that IMAP Gmail is unusable, but it’s not without issues. I should preface my impressions by stating that I’ve only used IMAP in the native Mac Mail client and my iPhone. I can’t see how the experience would vary much based on the client used, but it’s worth a mention. I’ll be testing with other clients as well, I’m simply using native Mac apps in Leopard for one full week as part of another experiment.

The first issue came to light when Frank sent me the following tweet on Twitter: “Having Gmail IMAP may not be the greatest. On my Win Mo device some email is coming in with blank bodies.” Blank bodies? Missing text? That should never happen to any mail artifact in any client. Frank isn’t the only one to share that info with me as well, so Windows Mobile users: you’ll want to proceed with caution if you plan to use Gmail’s IMAP at the moment.Next up is Matt Miller’s experience on the BlackBerry Curve. It seems as though this IMAP solution isn’t fully supported yet by RIM and Matt had much better luck sticking with POP for his Gmail on the Curve. I expect that RIM will work with Google to iron things out, but for now, it sounds hit or miss.My own initial impressions were positive, but as I dig a little deeper, I’m seeing some inefficiencies and inconsistencies. On the iPhone, everything works as it should. In fact, it’s working just as well as it does with my Exchange account, which supports IMAP. Messages appear just fine and it’s a two-way sync so when I delete a message on the mobile device, it’s deleted on the GMail server. This is better than my Exchange IMAP account, which I’m running concurrently on the iPhone, because deleting messages on the iPhone does not delete them on the server. As a result, I’ve had to duplicate action on some messages; something that should never happen. But that gets me to the biggest issue of them all… message management with Gmail IMAP.There’s a major inconsistency between Google’s labels and folders or mailboxes, depending if we’re talking Windows or Mac. Let me step back and explain for a second. On the web-based Gmail client, you can “label” a message. Let’s use “Expenses” as an example, because I file all e-mail receipts in Expenses. Taking it one step further, you can use multiple labels in Gmail, so if my e-mail receipt had a software license key in it, I might label it “License Key” also. That’s a great feature in Gmail because you can multi-tag. When you translate that feature to non-web clients, however, it’s a bandwidth-hogging, space-wasting poison to productivity.Going back to the Gmail labels for a sec. In Outlook, for example, these would equate to folders. In my example above, Gmail IMAP would create two folders under my Inbox in Outlook: one for Expenses and one for License Keys. Same in Mac Mail, although the nomenclature is a little different: I’d have two new mailboxes in my account: one for Expenses and one for License Keys. With me so far? Good, now here’s the problem.In the example above using the two labels to organize my mail, I’ve just created four duplicate messages. “Why would he do that?” you ask? I didn’t, so to speak. The issue is that I’m not seeing Gmail’s label feature map on a one-to-one basis. That one message in my example will be in four places as I mentioned: All Mail, Inbox, Expenses, License Keys. I don’t need four copies to be downloaded and I sure as heck don’t want four copies to manage.Now, I’ll definitely admit that my first impressions of this particular issue could be my mistake. After all, I haven’t had the account set up and working for that long. That doesn’t address the first issues that folks are seeing on their mobile devices and it certainly doesn’t have me dumping Exchange just yet. I’m hoping that either my ignorance of how Gmail’s IMAP is fixed or we see some changes from Google to make it better soon.


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