Email has been around for a long time now and has since branched out and found a strong foothold in modern business. The email systems of the past are shades of what they are today – yet it’s surprising to me that people are still oblivious to the 3 major protocols that our power our mail services. This is especially shocking given the important nature of these services so today we will be discussing what these major 3 email protocols are, and what differentiates them from one another.
When setting up email for your company there are three main protocols you can use: POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3), IMAP, and MAPI (aka Exchange ActiveSync). POP3 is the oldest of the available protocols and it functions by dequeuing or requesting and removing the email from the email server and delivering it to an endpoint. In many cases, this endpoint is your computer or your phone. The issue with this system is that once the mail item leaves the server and get’s delivered, the mail item only lives on that particular device. This became more problematic as people began using multiple devices in multiple locations. (e.g. with POP3 if your email gets delivered to your computer you are not also able to see this mail item from your phone, or from any other device since the piece of mail is now literally stored on your device instead of the server.)
IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) that was the successor of the POP3 protocol. The major benefit being that users can request a copy of the mail item from the email server. I like to compare POP3 to a ‘store and forward’ type of email service and IMAP is like a remote file server for your mail items. IMAP allows the users to connect to the mail server from multiple devices since this is handled by the actual mail client and is not specified by the server. There are still drawbacks to IMAP in that user authentication is transmitted in plain-text and can easily be compromised by someone who knows what they are doing. Administrators have been able to get around these issues by enabling SSL encryption on the data packets that traditionally get sent in plain-text but this system is still not ideal. As well, since all the email lives on the remote server, you have a limited mailbox size depending on the service you are using. Beyond this, there are also common issues with sending and receiving mail when your mailbox is full. Go figure.
MAPI aka ActiveSync
Exchange ActiveSync is the newest and by far the best email protocol available but it’s not free. ActiveSync is similar to IMAP in many ways like allowing multiple devices to connect but differs in some key aspects. The most notable being the ease of use. It’s darn easy to setup ActiveSync in comparison to the other protocols. Where ActiveSync really shines is it’s ability to push mail to clients when it arrives as opposed to periodically running mail syncs on a set interval. It also supports advanced security features like remote administration (enforce a PIN code, remote wipe, etc.).
TL;DR MAPI > IMAP > POP3
Without going into a technical tangent I will end this article with this: MAPI is like IMAP on steroids and it should be since you have to pay Microsoft for it. It might be overkill for a personal email account but when considering email for your entire organization MAPI is hands-down the best protocal. IMAP is good for people who don’t have the need or money to use MAPI and POP3 should be avoided like the plague.
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