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hybrid emailing

This is a super-nerdy post. I was originally going to write this for work, but if I did that it would have been 'lost in translation' as they say because it's mostly old-school stuff.

Before I talked about Cloud POP'ing. While decent, it's a pain in the ass because it's not mobile-friendly. If for example I was with my netbook in a public wi-fi location, using a mail client would be dumb because the sync would be slow as molasses.

I've also never been totally comfortable with having all my mail on the web. Most people have at least one horror story where they lost a really important email or a whole bunch due to a system glitch that wasn't even their fault. I've spoken of several email horror stories in the past so I'm unfortunately familiar with them.

The solution that covers all the bases is to use POP3 and web. How it's done is definitely different, but it works.

IMAP in most instances sucks; it is totally dependent on how good or bad your mail provider is and how good or bad your ISP is. If you use FastMail for example, their IMAP is spot-on because it's business-grade email. It blows the doors off of Gmail's IMAP because FastMail's servers are tuned in a way that really delivers performance. However all that is for naught if your ISP has crappy connectivity. Good well-tuned mail provider + good well-run ISP = great IMAP. That combo gives you IMAP that operates so fast you'd swear it was locally-stored mail. Unfortunately the perfect-match combo of great ISP + great IMAP is hard to come by.

POP3 on the other hand always works on even the crappiest mail servers and/or ISP connections. This is because the protocol is much simpler and much easier to implement. It is very, very difficult to break POP3 because in basic terms there's nothing to break.

My hybrid method

My primary email as most of your out there know is Yahoo! Mail. I have a plus account which I bought for elimination of all ads, POP3 access and higher-priority mail delivery (when you're a plus subscriber, you do notice the difference). It's money well spent in my opinion.

Yes, I could get along with free Y! Mail if I wanted to. I know all the ways to block the ads and get POP without being a plus subscriber, but to be blunt honest it's too much of a pain in the ass to deal with that, particularly with POP. The problem with the free POP methods is the clients available have a nasty habit of breaking often; they're just not reliable.

On the desktop I use Mozilla Thunderbird 3.1.6, and on the netbook I use the web version of Y! Mail. Both are what I call semi-synchronized.

Here's how it all works. There's no way to describe this without it being overly complicated, but this setup is very reliable and works perfectly. I'll list this in points because that's the easiest way to follow along with what I did.

  1. Web: Create a disposable address in Yahoo! Mail. This is something only available in a plus subscription. Were you using Gmail, disposable addresses are free, but I don't use Gmail nor would I because if you know me at all, you know I don't like Gmail.
  2. Web: Create a filter that filters any incoming mail where the recipient list includes that disposable address to be moved to the Sent folder on arrival.
  3. Client: Setup your email account in the client to retrieve mail via POP. Set to leave messages on server except when you delete manually. For each mail sent, have the client auto-bcc the disposable address:
  4. Web: Create a secondary throw-away POP email account. Make sure it is something brand new with an "odd" name so it will never be spammed, like blah.blah9999@whatever.mail.
  5. Client: Set up the secondary account in Thunderbird.
  6. Client: Set up a message filter in Thunderbird so that whatever email is received to that secondary account will automatically be delivered to the Sent folder.

What the above does:

I put synchronization in quotes because nothing is truly synchronizing here, but the above makes the mail act just like it were. Same times, same dates, same messages, same everything in two places.

The kingpin: Dropbox

After reading this part you'll understand why I've gone through all this hassle.

Okay, so I have a copy of my mail on Y! Mail and a local copy with Thunderbird. However there's one final nagging issue - backup.

Y! Mail has no backup option. In fact, no email does so you're left on your own to figure that out.

Mail clients also have no backup feature. If you have a mail database or even a single email file go corrupt, well, sorry Charlie, you're screwed.

What option is left? Send it to the cloud with Dropbox. How? Hard links of Thunderbird's mail database files to the Dropbox folder. Works like a charm.

See, the biggest problem with mail in general is backing it up. You want a solution that backs up your stuff to the cloud (i.e. the internet) and does so completely automatically so you can literally set it and forget it. With a mail client, Dropbox is without a doubt the easiest way to do that. It just sits and runs whenever it needs to sync. The best part is that Dropbox is smart enough to know only the parts of a file that have changed. What the client does is internally calculate a parts of a file in blocks. Whatever blocks change is what the Dropbox client syncs. This literally means if you have a 1GB file and only 100 bytes of it change, only those 100 bytes will be synced and not a re-upload of the whole frickin' file. The way it works is genius.

Pros and Cons

These are the pros and cons of hybrid emailing, starting with all the cons first:

My way isn't perfect, but it works well

I'm not telling you to do mail my way. You may be completely comfortable with web-based mail alone or client-based mail alone. If that's the case, fine by me. I wanted something where I could utilize either at whim and have a zero-hassle mail backup solution that worked the way I wanted, and I got it.

The other way of seamless mail backup: 100% web-based

There is another way to backup mail using 100% web-based ways, but it's something that I don't care for because again, it's difficult to get the mail out. Here it is:

  1. Have all mail sent to a Hotmail or Gmail account. Only login to this email once every three weeks to keep it "alive" so the account doesn't auto-close on you.
  2. Use another Gmail or Hotmail account to "re-download" the mail via POP from the first one. The second account is the one you actually use to send mail from; the first acts solely as a backup.
  3. For every mail sent, Bcc the first account. Have the first account filter those incoming mails into its Sent folder.
  4. Configure the second account so your reply-to address always sends replies to the first account.

What you're doing here is "piggy-backing" from one mail account to another. A copy of every mail is in two webmail accounts by configuring it as said above. Hotmail and Gmail can both do this because they both offer free POP3 access.

The reason I don't do the above is because I don't like either mail system, and the mail is being run through spam filters you have no control over twice; this makes it too easy to miss mail by one or both accounts flagging mails as spam by mistake. You also have to remember to login to the first account at least once every three weeks, else one day your mail will stop due to account inactivity on the first account. Remember: Downloading mail via POP is not the same as actually logging into a webmail account, so you do have to do it periodically to keep it "alive".

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