I’m already on the record about how I believe email can be a powerful interface to other applications. A large part of what makes that possible, for me, is Internet Message Access Protocol, or IMAP. I’ve been accessing my email account via this method for a few years now and it’s made the whole concept of email drastically more useful to me, primarily by liberating me from the specific location where I might have sent or received an email. It works so well, in fact, that now I want it for all the other kinds of messaging that I do too.
For those unfamiliar with it, IMAP leaves messages on the server as well as storing copies locally on your hard drive. It basically gives you the same in box (and sent folder, trash folder, etc.) on any computer you use regularly, or even when you access your account via webmail. Especially for receiving and replying to email from both the office and at home, it’s a huge improvement over its predecessor, POP, which can’t reflect a message sent or received from one computer onto another. What I’d like to see is an extension of the IMAP concept, if not its specification, to similarly manage all the other various kinds of messaging in which I engage regularly.
Write Once, Read and Reply Everywhere
Instant messaging, for example, keeps me nearly as busy as email, and SMS is rapidly gaining behind that, even. These channels are becoming increasingly important to nearly everything I do, both business and personal, and keeping on top of what information was messaged where is becoming a greater and greater concern. And yet the basic experience of these other services is very much like POP: if I send a message from one client, whether it’s a phone or laptop or a borrowed computer, the only record of that message will ever exist on that one client.
Right now, Google (of course) offers what I consider to be a stopgap approach: if you use their Web-based interface for chatting, a transcript of your conversations is automatically stored in a Gmail folder, making it essentially accessible from everywhere. It’s an acceptable solution if you’re amenable to instant messaging through a web interface, but by and large I’m not. (What’s more, it has no provision for SMS messages.) As I’ve said in the past, I’m a bit old fashioned in that I’m a fan of desktop computing. I want software that ties into all of the services and conveniences that my operating system provides me without relying on network connectivity. But more importantly, I want to be able to use any client I want, whether online or offline.
Trying to Make It So There’s No ‘There’ There
Part of the beauty of IMAP is its under-appreciated, seamless synchronization between desktop and server, which effectively unites the two into a single experience — it’s really one of the finest examples of combining the two in common, everyday use that’s out there. It’s actually quite visionary in that it allows users to focus on content, and to ignore the distinction between online and offline access. What makes it so powerful is that it renders irrelevant the location of the documents that hold that content (mail messages are after all, miniature documents). As computing becomes more ubiquitous, the irrelevancy of location to access is only going to become more and more desirable.
Messaging platforms like IM and SMS are defusing the idea of location as a hurdle to accessing content, it’s true. But somewhat unwittingly and paradoxically, they’re also tethering themselves to individual clients, to physical hardware with unique stores of data. When the data on a device is the only copy of its kind, its location is more important than ever. Until these services have an IMAP-like solution, they won’t truly be able to liberate us from location, or be as useful or as powerful as they can be.