If it weren't irreplaceable, e-mail would be intolerable. Spam and viruses are all a pain, but the biggest hassle with e-mail is simply managing the volume of it all.
Answer this, forward that, file the other thing -- then try to keep track of it all on more than one computer: It's like a checkbook that will never be balanced.
Transcript: Check out the transcript of Rob Pegoraro's March 22 Web chat. Readers queried Rob about this column and much more.
A big part of this problem is the way most people check their e-mail -- an old standard called Post Office Protocol, POP for short, that was developed for a far simpler time.
If we downloaded e-mail to only one computer, POP would still work. But between work and home computers and Web-mail options, it's easy to have three different routes to one inbox -- something POP was never designed for at all.
Trying to check a POP account from two computers is always a mess. If you download each e-mail to only one computer, you lose track of who sent you what.
But if you keep your messages on your Internet provider's computers until you've copied them to every machine you use, you can expect that mail server will eventually forget which messages you'd already retrieved, sending down fresh copies of every one and flooding your inbox with duplicates.
A better mail setup that solves those problems was developed over a decade ago and has been tested extensively since. But IMAP (pronounced "eye-map," it stands for "Internet Mail Access Protocol") suffers two flaws of its own: One is that most Internet providers don't offer it. The other is that most users don't know it exists.
I can't do much about the first thing, but this is my attempt to change the second.
Like POP accounts, IMAP allows you to use the e-mail program of your choice. Unlike POP (but much like Web-mail), IMAP gives you the ability to access all of your e-mail from wherever you log in, while also tracking what you've done with each message.
So you can check your e-mail from different places, yet never lose your place.
Log in from every computer you use, borrow a friend's e-mail program, or use a Web-mail interface -- and every time, you can pick up where you left off by seeing which messages you've read, replied to, forwarded, flagged for follow-up or filed away in their own folders.
You can even start writing a message on one computer and finish it on another, since an online Drafts folder is a regular feature. So is a Templates folder for your stationery.
Spam and viruses are easier to deflect, since your mail software can peek at each new message before downloading it, then wipe it off the server before it gets to stain your hard drive. But if your computer does get wiped out by a virus, you won't lose your e-mail from it.
This setup functions best over broadband connection, but since IMAP mail programs can automatically "mirror" your online folders on your hard drive, it works over dial-up too. Even if you can't get online, you can still see every message that had arrived when you last checked your mail -- unlike Web-mail.
Finally, when you do want to archive e-mail -- for example, when your account starts to bump up against its disk quota -- it's easy to move messages to a local folder on your computer for permanent storage.
The odds are that you've used something like this once before. America Online's mail system was built on similar principles, and it remains one of the company's biggest advantages over its competitors. (In one useful aspect, its ability to store your address book online puts AOL ahead of IMAP itself.)
Making use of IMAP means finding an amenable Internet access provider. AT&T Worldnet, Comcast, EarthLink, Juno/NetZero, SBC Yahoo and Verizon all offer only POP and Web-mail access.
The usual explanation is that consumers don't want IMAP, and it would cost too much to offer anyway.
"We haven't seen a large demand from the pure consumer segment," said Stephen Currie, EarthLink's director of product management, in an e-mail forwarded by the service's PR department. He also noted the added processing capacity and disk costs needed by IMAP, concluding, "I don't think it would be feasible to offer a mainstream free IMAP product."
Further down the food chain, however, many smaller providers are doing just that.
For example, three local firms, Silver Spring-based Atlantech, PatriotNet in Fairfax and Rockville's Heller Information Services, reported that anywhere from 15 percent to a third of their customers had switched to IMAP.
What's particularly impressive about those numbers is that two of these firms barely mention their IMAP support on their own Web sites. That's typical; you'll probably have to ask your own provider if it offers this option.
Should your provider be so enlightened, switching to IMAP will involve noting the change in your e-mail program's setup screen.
The quality of your software, however, may be an issue in its own right. Two of the most widely used mail applications, Microsoft's Outlook and Qualcomm's Eudora, suffer from strangely sloppy IMAP support. The Mozilla browser's mail component, Apple's Mail program for Mac OS X and Microsoft's Outlook Express work better -- but even then, little defects such as Mail's habit of creating a "Sent Items" folder instead of using the standard "Sent" folder for outgoing messages can lead to confusion.
But these problems should all be solved in the usual course of development; someday, every e-mail account will work like this. Until then, IMAP should be on your shopping list the next time you look for an Internet service.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.