Universal Sent Mail

Last time I walked you through a solution for keeping your contacts in sync across multiple PCs, this time, I’ll share my solution for keeping my sentbox in sync across those same PCs. In this article, I’m assuming you’re using a local mail client, such as Outlook, to manage your mail and not a web interface. See my last article for an explanation on why a local mail client works better for some.

If I’m using multiple PCs to do my “work” (ok, it’s not all work) then it helps to have the same mail on all of those PCs, including my sent mail. As I explained in the last article, I’ve settled on Thunderbird as my universal mail client because I can use this same tool on any platform whether that be a Mac, Linux or a Windows PC. You certainly don’t have to settle on a single client, but it sure makes life easier if you do.

Before I go any further, let me geek-out a bit and give a little background on two email protocols; IMAP and POP. Hang with me while I walk through this because it’s apropos to what we’re trying to accomplish. Unless you’re setup on some kind of proprietary email system, you’re using one of these two protocols to pull your mail from your service provider’s (the folks who take your money every month for internet service or a free email provider like yahoo or google) email servers. Just to explain, when someone sits down to send you an email, chances are they’re compiling that message on their PC using a mail client like Apple Mail or Outlook (or they may be sending the message through a web-interface). When they hit SEND, that message is transferred to their service provider’s email server. Once received the email server then works to deliver that message to you (using a protocol called SMTP), but there’s a catch here ….. you’re not always online. To get around this issue, your service provider sets up a server that accepts that incoming mail and deposits it into a mailbox with your name on it. Next time you access the internet to check your mail, your mail client interfaces with the email server using one of those two protocols — IMAP or POP. So why do you care? Because it’s important for you to know which protocol you’re setup to use because they work in very different ways.

Think of POP as grab-and-run and IMAP as hang-around-and-chat. By that I mean that with POP, your client connects to the server and asks “whatcha got for me” and the server responds with a list of messages. The POP client determines which messages it already has and then says, “ok, send me this list of messages”. Once received they’re saved to your inbox and you now have a local copy of your mail. With IMAP, the process works very differently. With an IMAP configured client, you’re connected to the server that holds your mail and your mail client works with it interactively on that server. Did you catch that …. this means you need a constant connection to the Internet and every change you make such as moving mail to a folder, actually makes the move on the server, not on your local machine. At first this might sound very convenient for somebody trying to work with mail from multiple places but you quickly discover that this breaks-down if more than one person reads email from that mailbox.

I’m guessing you have that “HUH” look on your face about now so let me give you a scenario. You’re at work and your checking your email (hope your boss doesn’t find out) you see a message from your friend about a BBQ on the weekend but you don’t have time to read the details and you tell yourself you’ll get back to it later in the day. Meanwhile your spouse is home and jumps on email and sees the BBQ message and says, “no way we’re going to that” and deletes the message. You finish up with your meeting and get back into your mail and discover that the BBQ message is gone —- see where this becomes a problem.

To bring us back on track here, you want to use POP to retrieve your mail and not IMAP, so dig around and figure out how you’re setup and if you’re using IMAP, go to your service provider’s help pages and figure out how to reconfigure using POP.

Now that we’re all using POP, we can configure our client for a universal sentbox. As I explained in the last article, I have multiple identities (email accounts) setup on each of the PCs used by my family so that we can read/send email on any one of those PCs. I then create a folder for each account and then build a rule that says to route incoming messages for each account to a particular folder. Thus my mail goes to my folder, my wife’s mail to her folder, etc. Then I configure the client NOT to save outgoing messages to the sent folder. Yes, you read that right, but instead I configure my client to automatically BCC a copy of every message sent from that machine to a special account I setup called sent@MYDOAMIN.COM (plug you own domain in here). That’s it, no magic, no super secret technique, just a simple BCC. Now all I have to do is setup each PC to check this SENT account and route the mail to my sent folder and every message that is sent from one of our family PCs, regardless of where it originated, shows up in the sentbox on every other machine.

Oh, one other thing; make sure you configure your client to NOT delete mail off your service providers server for a certain period of time (I use 30 days) otherwise your mail will get out of sync.

If you use multiple PCs and multiple mail accounts this is a great technique for managing your mail. Give it a shot, you’ll be glad you did.


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