Whether it's Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird, or something else, most people have a favorite e-mail app for storing messages in folders, filtering spam, and saving copies of sent mail. Chances are, the program talks to your ISP's mail server via the Post Office Protocol 3 (POP3).
But as computing becomes increasingly ubiquitous, many users need to access their e-mail from public terminals, branch-office workstations, loaner systems, or relatives' home machines. POP3 just isn't set up for that: Even if you tweak your mail program to leave read messages on the server, only your main PC contains your sorted, filtered inbox folders and sent mail. Another mail protocol, the Internet Message Access Protocol, or IMAP, is a much better solution for wandering e-mailers -- but only if your ISP, employer, or other e-mail provider happens to support it.
Keep it on the server
Unlike POP3, IMAP stores your folders and sent mail on a server rather than on your local PC. This approach lets you see the same messages and folders, including sent e-mail, regardless of which program or computer you're using to connect to your account. However, IMAP also creates a mirror of the server's contents on your local PC, which allows you to read and respond to mail offline. (Note that you set up an IMAP account the same way you create a POP3 account in most e-mail programs.)
IMAP also permits you to use multiple e-mail applications, including Thunderbird and the new Windows version of Novell's Outlook-killer Evolution, to check your mail from the office, from home, or from the road. Each mail client will show all of the account's sorted and sent mail, with all your changes reflected no matter which program you used to create the account.
Of course, there's a hitch. Although Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, Evolution, and most other e-mail apps work with IMAP servers, e-mail services that support IMAP are more difficult to find. Many big-name ISPs and services, including Comcast, Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo, still offer only POP3 access, though indications are that Gmail and Yahoo may support IMAP eventually.
Nevertheless, just because you have an Internet provider that doesn't offer IMAP e-mail servers, that doesn't mean you must use that ISP as your primary e-mail service. E-mail programs allow you to check multiple accounts, so you can simply add a new IMAP account and migrate to using it as your main address. A few big players, such as America Online's AIM Mail, are IMAP friendly, but you're more likely to find local ISPs and such specialized e-mail sites as FastMail offering IMAP service for a few bucks per month or for free. If you rely on e-mail as much as I do, switching to IMAP could free you from being tied to one computer, operating system, or e-mail program.
You have yet another option if it turns out that your e-mail server does not support IMAP. Simply configure your main mail program to leave all of your messages on the server, which will at least allow you to download your mail using another PC, location, operating system, or program. To make sure you have a copy of your sent messages, just cc: yourself -- the copies will be waiting in your main PC's inbox when you return from your travels.
Good-bye, Outlook: Evolution comes to Windows
I like being free to use the computer, operating system, and application that are the best for the job I'm doing. I use Macs and Linux machines along with Windows PCs, although I've mostly given up using Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer. Still, I remained a prisoner of Microsoft Outlook, because no other Windows program provided the same killer combination of e-mail, calendar, task, and contact management. However, Novell's Evolution -- long a Linux-only Outlook competitor -- is wending its way to Windows. Though still pre-beta software at this writing, Evolution for Windows can already function well as an alternative to Outlook.