Microsoft recently introduced the all-new Outlook.com, a replacement for its Hotmail webmail service. The service has since won rave reviews for its speed, unlimited storage and the fresh, distinctly modern interface.
Outlook.com is modern in more ways than one - it's the first "social" email experience, with support for integration of popular social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn within your Inbox. However, the one area where the service has drawn some flak is the lack of IMAP support.
IMAP, Internet Message Access Protocol, is one of two popular email retrieval protocols that helps users keep various devices in sync with the same email account (or mailbox). The other popular protocol is POP (Post Office Protocol), which offers far fewer features compared to IMAP.
Essentially, POP is an email retrieval protocol that lets users retrieve emails from the server onto their device (like a computer or a mobile), while optionally leaving a copy on the server. IMAP goes way beyond this, by letting various devices sync to the same mailbox, such that they can share information like message status (read, unread, replied-to, flagged etc.) with each other. Contrast this with POP, where if you flag a downloaded message on your computer for follow up, this status cannot be passed back to the server.
Coming back to Outlook.com, Microsoft has been criticised for offering out-of-the-box POP support, but not extending IMAP support that other providers like Gmail offer for free. Microsoft has finally come clean on the issues and, as expected, its defence consisted of two words: Exchange ActiveSync.
The Outlook team was in attendance for a Q&A at the popular site Gizmodo and it didn't take long for the IMAP question to pop-up. Microsoft responded by claiming that IMAP "is an old protocol" and that Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) offers many advantages offer IMAP like syncing contacts, calendar and tasks in addition to good-old email.
However, it said that it recognises some people would want to use IMAP regardless, and it promised that IMAP support is "coming", but refused to give any timelines. It is worth nothing, it didn't sounds like supporting IMAP was one of their priorities.
Interestingly, the Outlook team also said they recognise they don't have great client support on the Mac and they are "working on it". Could this mean a dedicated Outlook.com app for Mac? Or will they extend EAS support to the Mac? To be honest, enabling IMAP would be the fastest way of enabling a decent email experience on the Mac, as users would be able to use a client of their choice.
The Microsoft response to the IMAP question in full:
Here's our thinking on IMAP: IMAP is an old protocol that supports only mail syncing (not calendar and people). Nowadays, EAS is simply a better protocol. It's fast, battery-efficient, and syncs mail, calendar, people and tasks. All modern phones support EAS, including iPhone, Android, Windows Phone. So, EAS is our long-term bet, and we just prioritized getting it out there before "going backwards" and working on IMAP. Nonetheless, we recognize that IMAP is widely implemented in clients, and that there are people that expect it in a mail service. We think IMAP is good for two things: (1) supporting legacy phones and clients that don't have EAS support, (2) supporting developers who want an API to access email. We think both those things are important, and so I expect we'll support IMAP for Outlook sometime down the line (I can't comment on release dates, blah, blah, blah). Building software means making tradeoffs, and we prioritized other things over IMAP. We'll get there. If IMAP is really, really important to you, you should wait to upgrade. Also, a special note for Mac users: We know our client support on the Mac isn't great and we're working on it.