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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 6 Issue 12December 2012
I Delete Email From My iPhone/Android/iPad, But It Still Comes Into My Computer--Argh!

The problem
When you get your email on multiple devices, perhaps a combination of:
  • A laptop at home plus your iPhone or Android phone, or
  • A desktop computer at the office as well as your iPad or other tablet,
then if the email settings on all of your devices are not set correctly, it can be very confusing or frustrating. Your email may arrive on one device and not another, and when you delete messages from your portable device you may find that they still arrive on your computer.

The quick answer
Confusing email problems like this occur because your devices aren't set up properly to coordinate, probably because some (or all) of them are using the POP email protocol. If you want your devices to see the same email messages, and be able to delete on one device and have those messages disappear from all the others, then all of them need to use either IMAP or webmail or (for smartphones and tablets) an email server-specific App.

How email works with one device--An analogy
Let's pretend you've got a P.O. box at the Post Office, and all of your U.S. mail is delivered there. When you go there to get your mail:
  • You have to know your box number, and
  • You have to bring the key to unlock it.
Then, when you go to the Post Office and unlock your P.O. box, you have 3 different ways you can handle your mail:
  • You can empty out the box and drive home with all of your letters, or
  • You can make copies of all your letters, put the originals back in the box, and drive home with the copies (in this imaginary world the Post Office has a free photocopier you can use), or
  • You can stand there in the lobby of the Post Office for as long as you want (they're open 24/7), reading and dealing with the letters in your box in whatever way you choose.
When you're the only person using the box, you can choose whichever option makes the most sense for you and things will probably work just fine.

How email works with multiple devices--Analogy, part 2
Now imagine what would happen if you shared this P.O. box with someone else who also had a key. There are two things about this that might drive you crazy:
  • Timing: On some days you might get to the P.O. box first, on other days they might get there first.
  • Handling: What if they handle the letters differently than you, or in a way you didn't expect?
Here's how the craziness might play out:
  • If the other person empties out the box at 1pm, and you arrive at 3pm, then you'll only see the new letters that came in after 1pm, if any.
  • If the other person makes copies and leaves the originals, when you arrive you'll see all of the letters, but the other person will still have their copies even if you throw some away.
  • However, if the other person stands in the lobby poring over the letters, when you arrive, if you do the same, you can coordinate with them with no confusion or duplication. Any letters you (or they) keep will simply be there for you both to see, and any letters you (or they) throw out won't end up being clutter for either of you.
To make matters worse, what if there was a 3rd or 4th person who also shared this P.O. box? Depending on when they came along (and what their habits were), this could get even more confusing.

This is just like the situation that you may find yourself in when you've got 2 or more devices (computers, smartphones, tablets, etc.) all checking the same email account. However, email is even more complicated than U.S. mail. P.O. boxes only collect incoming letters and the Post Office doesn't keep a record of the mail you've sent, but your email has an Inbox for your incoming messages, a Sent folder for your outgoing messages, and probably also a Drafts folder for messages you've composed but haven't sent yet. This gets even more complicated when you've got multiple email accounts that you want to coordinate across all of your devices.

Solving this problem: First decide what you want...
The first step in sorting all this out is to decide what you want. For example:
  • You may want to see exactly the same messages (incoming and outgoing) on all of your devices. If you delete a message on one device, it should disappear from all the rest. If you compose and send a message, it should appear in the Sent folder on every device.
  • You want your computer to get all of your messages (incoming and outgoing), but you don't really care if every other device stays perfectly up-to-date and sees every message.
...Then find out whether your email server supports IMAP, and assess the "cost" of changing your settings to coordinate your email
Find out if your email server supports the IMAP protocol, which lets your devices "stand in the lobby," i.e., see and control what's on the server directly. If it does, that gives you the most choices. Some email servers include IMAP for free (e.g., AOL, Gmail, and RCN), others charge extra for it (e.g., Godaddy), and others don't implement it at all (e.g., Comcast and Verizon).

If your server supports IMAP and you use a regular email client program on your computer, you can change your program to use IMAP for your email, but if you already have a lot of accumulated email messages stored on your computer (not on the server), this may make things more complicated, since you'll end up with two separate message stores: older messages on your computer and newer ones on the server. Or, you could copy all of your old messages to the server and create a unified email storage area.

If your server doesn't support IMAP, the only other options for arranging "well-coordinated" email on your computer are:
  • Webmail (where you access your email directly on your email server's web site using a web browser): If you're already accustomed to using a regular email program, switching to webmail can be very inconvenient. Webmail stores your messages on the server, not your computer, so you may end up with two separate message stores. It's not clear how you would back up your messages, webmail is often more primitive (no spell checker, less convenient address book, different style of spam filter), and its interface and functions may change under the company's control, not yours.
  • Forwarding your email to another account on a different server that does support IMAP: This is a workaround to "create" IMAP. For example, if your email is on Comcast, you could create a Gmail account and forward all your email. Then you would change the email software on your computer (and all your devices) to fetch from Gmail using IMAP (or use their webmail or App). You'd also have to make sure that any messages you send display your Comcast address in the "From" field.
...Then coordinate the right technology and settings across your devices in an organized and deliberate way
If you want to see exactly the same messages on all of your devices, then:
  • On your computer, you either need to a) use a regular email client program and configure it to use IMAP (if your server supports it), or b) use webmail.
  • On each of your smartphones and tablets, you need to a) configure its email client program to use IMAP (if your server supports it), or b) download your email server's email App (if they provide one), or c) use webmail (which can be difficult to use on a small screen). In my experience, the default email settings on a smartphone or tablet tend to use the POP protocol (with the "leave on server" option) instead of IMAP, so implementing this solution will probably require extra effort.
If you set this up properly on all of your devices, then they will all "stand in the lobby at the Post Office" together, and then when you create or delete messages on one device, it will have the same effect on all of the others. This also means that if you accidentally delete a message on one device, it will disappear from all of them, and only if you have a backup (or can retrieve it from your server's Trash folder) will you have any chance of getting it back.

If you want your computer to get all your messages, and it doesn't matter whether your other devices miss some messages, then:
  • At a minimum, you need to avoid using the POP protocol with the "remove from server" option on your secondary devices, so one device doesn't "steal" email messages from all the others.
  • Coordinating your email properly between your computer and your smartphones and tablets takes some knowledge, planning, and effort.
  • Getting it right can eliminate confusion and boost your productivity.
  • However, depending on your situation, the "cost" of coordinating your email may not be worth the changes (and complexity) you may be required to make.
Where to go from here
  • For each email account, start by researching your options: Does your email server support IMAP? Is there a server-specific App for your smartphone or tablet (e.g., Gmail, Yahoo, MSN, etc.)? What is the address for your server's webmail page?
  • What changes will you need to make? How much work is involved? How complicated will that make your email infrastructure?
  • See "How can I get my email on more than one computer?" (http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2011/2011_06_30.html) for a more detailed description of how to solve this problem when two computers are involved.
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2012 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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