Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Gmail and IMAP and BlackBerry (Oh, my!)

When I was employed, I ran my own mail server and my own BlackBerry Enterprise Server, and I had things tuned pretty much exactly as I wanted them. My incoming mail got some custom processing that looked the sender’s address up in my address book and assigned the message a category. Filters written using the Sieve standard used those categories, along with other information, to do custom spam filtering, to sort the mail into mailboxes, and to decide which messages went to my BlackBerry.

I was a very happy email user.

Now that I’m on my own, I’ve decided not to run my own server and all that software, and I’ve switched to Gmail and the T-Mobile BlackBerry server. The cost is the same (Gmail is free, and I was already paying T-Mobile for the BlackBerry service). The function is not.

Surprisingly, though, I’m mostly still happy.

First, the good part: While I don’t like the Gmail “conversations” view for everything, it turns out to be very nice for looking at some types of email conversations. In particular, I like it for mailing lists, and that’s a good proportion of what I need to read. Some other mail works well with that model also. And for the mail that doesn’t, I have it both ways, because Gmail supports IMAP. So I use my familiar email program (I use Mulberry, but Thunderbird, Outlook, Apple Mail, Eudora, and many other programs support IMAP as well) to do the things I can’t do in the Gmail web interface. Gmail has fixed the significant bugs in their IMAP server implementation, especially with the addition of the Advanced IMAP Controls feature in Gmail Labs. It’s all pretty smooth.

On the negative side, though, the Gmail filters leave something to be desired. They don’t support the Sieve language, and the way filters are defined is tedious. And even though Gmail has an integrated contact list, there’s no way to connect the Gmail contacts with the filters, so I can’t easily say, for example, “take any message that comes from someone in my ‘friends’ group and give it the ‘Friends’ label” (which has the effect of putting it into a “Friends” IMAP mailbox).

To get the mail to the BlackBerry, I set T-Mobile up to connect to Gmail for me, grab my mail, and send it to the BlackBerry. T-Mobile does this using POP3, and here’s where the problems arise. Except for messages marked as spam or put directly into the trash, Gmail presents every message to POP3 clients — not just messages in the Gmail Inbox, but also messages that are hidden from the Inbox (given other labels), including those in Sent Mail (that is, the messages that I, myself, sent).

That means that absolutely everything, including my own outbound mail, gets sent to the BlackBerry. That’s the part I’m not happy with. It’s manageable (I do use a separate address for my mailing list subscriptions), but it’s annoying. I want to have a way to put low-priority mail under some label that doesn’t make it go to my BlackBerry. I certainly do not want to have the mail I send copied to the BlackBerry (if I should want certain outbound messages to go there, I could BCC myself to make it happen).

So there’s an email geek’s review of the normal, un-customized services. It mostly works well, and I’m mostly happy. And, actually, I’d have been very surprised if I were fully pleased. The most significant things that Gmail could do better are these:

  1. Add an “Advanced POP Controls” labs feature that would let me hide selected labels from the Gmail POP server, just as the “Advanced IMAP Controls” feature lets me do with IMAP.
  2. Create some integration between the filters and the contacts, especially allowing me to match addresses to contact groups.
  3. Allow me to write filter scripts in Sieve and upload them to Gmail.


Frisky070802 said...

I agree, I have been really disappointed by the filters in gmail. I'd like to be able to apply multiple labels in a single filter, to have rules based on my contacts list as you suggested, star things with more than the default star, and so on.

On the other hand, on the whole, it still kicks ass.

John said...

have you had any luck with the filters on tmobile.com/bis?

Barry Leiba said...

I did create a filter on T-Mobile to prevent the mail I send from being sent to the BlackBerry (the filter just says that if it's "from" me, don't send it). That works nicely, and solves one of my problems.

Creating other filters on T-Mobile is too tedious, and also doesn't address the main issues which are that I'd like to tie the filters to my address book, and that I'd like to make filters that depend on other filters (in an if-then-else way). Also, the T-Mobile filters only look at address fields and the subject — they can't filter on the message body, for example.