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Issue #731: July 25-31, 2021

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Q: I recently noticed that the list of emails in my iPad were different from my desktop. I always thought as I deleted an email from one device, the other would be the same. Today I noticed that they were different.  What’s going on?

 – Spouse Peripheral
Bluewater Bay, Florida

A: Regular readers will recognize the moniker of the asker of the above question as my wonderful wife, Wendy.  As such, I have a little more insider information than I normally would if someone else had asked the question.  For example, I know she has multiple e-mail accounts, and that they are from multiple providers.  I know the accounts are set-up using the IMAP protocol, and not POP3.  I know this is why S.P. expects the e-mail on multiple devices to be in sync with each other.

IMAP, which stands for Internet Message Access Protocol is an open protocol (it is not “owned” by any company) that describes the commands and responses required to access an online e-mail box.  It is the de facto standard for e-mail these days, and is supported by all, or nearly all major e-mail providers.

When an account uses IMAP, messages from the remote e-mail server are not downloaded the way they are with some other protocols.  Instead, all of the mail is left on the e-mail server, and the e-mail client is simply viewing it and interacting with it remotely.  The protocol allows you to create, edit, and delete e-mail, of course.  But it also has all the features to maintain folders and move messages between them.  Because all of this activity is happening on the remote mail server, it really doesn’t matter what device you use to access your e-mail.  Whether that be an iPad, or a smartphone, or a laptop running Outlook or some other e-mail client, it’s always going to look the same from every device or browser, because nothing is stored locally, so there is nothing that needs to be synchronized in the classic sense of the word.

So, when a situation arises when things don’t match, as happened to S.P., the obvious conclusion is that one or the other of the e-mail clients is failing to access the e-mail server for one reason or another.  Instead of showing the current state of what’s on the mail server as it usually does, it shows a copy of the last state that it knew about, which, as S.P. discovered, might not match the reality of devices that are successfully accessing it.

A quick look at S.P.’s iPad revealed that it had been several days since it had successfully attached to the server.  This notice was in itty-bitty letters at the very bottom of the screen in the e-mail app, and was tough to see, much less read.  Somehow, the e-mail app “forgot” the proper account credentials to access the account, and so was unable to log-in to the server.  The result was the same as would happen if it was a human being trying, and failing to log-in: Access denied.  A quick fix of the password, and everything was in sync again.  This exact condition would have occurred if her iPad had simply lost connection to the server, such as if its Internet connection was down.  IMAP requires a live connection to the mail server to function.  So, hopefully if any of you run into a situation where multiple devices that you use to access a single e-mail account seem out of sync, you’ll now know to check the connectivity and password to make sure you’re connected to the server.

• • •

If you’ve ever filled out the online form on my website to submit a question, you’ve come across a part where I ask you to “Describe your computer”.  Of course, what I’m looking for is specs, like the type of processor, amount of RAM, hard drive size, etc. For some questions, this is information can be critical in coming up with a fix.  Now, I like to think that I have a good sense of humor, and I like a good joke as much as the next guy.  But for her description, Spouse Peripheral wrote: “It’s a rectangle.  Black with a silver bar on the bottom. Sits on a shelf for convenience in reading the screen.” (Insert solo cricket chip here.)  Don’t answer like Spouse Peripheral did.  By all means, do share your jokes if you think they’re funny, but when it comes to submitting your questions, help me to help you by providing succinct and accurate information.

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