Messaging and Location, Location, Location

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.

  1. The gTalk client (or any other client that goes through Google’s ‘chat service’, for that matter) will have it’s messages logged as well…so you don’t _have_ to use the browser-based chat if you don’t want to.

    Meebo also offers centralized logging of chats…across all major services…via a much nicer browser-experience than gTalk (especially the Firefox addon).

    Just thought I would throw that out there…

  2. I share your thoughts exactly, Khoi. And the concept extends to pretty much any form of storage and the need for it to be remotely accessible.

    I’m finding the same thing with music at the moment. I’ve had my iTunes library on an external drive for a long time, and although I can plug that into any computer I want, the actually library has to be manually updated to reflect newer rips / purchases from another machine. And then there’s applications, presets, plugins… basically all the stuff that isn’t that easy to open from a variety of computers (unlike, say, a simple document on a swappable external HD).

    The need for a totally remote storage system is growing closer ever day…

  3. Skype attempts to retain your chat transcripts – making you think you’re able to review any chat you’ve had in the past.

    BUT, when using multiple devices, these logs get split up, and even worse, is that when synchronizing two machines, there is little you can do to merge those transcripts together.

  4. IMAP is fantastic. I’ve used it since I’ve been in college, and I’m still shocked at why it’s not more popular.

    I really like the way that it’s an open protocol so you’re not locked into a particular client or Operating System, yet still remains as powerful as other options.

    I’d love to see similar things happen with other data options. I think one of the trajedies of online communication is that IM didn’t start out as an open protocol, and so we’re still left with the legacy of IM systems that aren’t interoperable and the lack of business adoption of IM, as well as general lack of innovation’s like this.

  5. I learned about IMAP a few months ago and have refused to use anything else for my various devices since. I know one of the hurdles to its popularity is the fact that not every email service supports it, and also its slight difficulty for the average person to get into when they just want to send email.

    Not too related to IMAP specifically, but I’m looking forward to the integration of data from different social networking sites (for example, linking your Digg and Facebook accounts), and having these same websites communicate with each other in the same way your various computers and devices communicate to fetch your mail. The latter connects to a centralized server though, while the former doesn’t have one. I think that’s a better example for your ‘location is irrelevant’ statement.

  6. Although I absolutely agree that IMAP is the bees knees and I wouldn’t ever consider going back to POP (I’ve been using IMAP since 2001), I wouldn’t mind playing devil’s advocate a little bit here…

    The one downside to storing everything in one place is that…you’re storing everything in one place. Besides the obvious backup implications of that, I’ve found it nightmarish to switch IMAP servers. I used to keep the over 5GB of archived mail I have (dating back to 1996!) on a Dreamhost account. When Gmail added IMAP, I decided to make the switch. Let me tell you: getting 5GB of mail from Dreamhost to IMAP is NOT fun. At all. It literally took weeks.

    So, just something to think about. But yeah, IMAP rocks, and the basic model is a good one for other sorts of messaging services to consider.

  7. The one downside to storing everything in one place is that…you’re storing everything in one place. Besides the obvious backup implications of that, I’ve found it nightmarish to switch IMAP servers.

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