Comparing Microsoft Exchange, Office 365, IMAP and POP3 email

28th February 2013

Email is deeply ingrained in people's social and business lives. Everyone who is online probably has access to an email address, either through:

  • An ISP
  • A free email service
  • Running your own domain
  • A business email address

Whether your email is provided free (eg Gmail, Yahoo! or or you pay for the service (common when using your own domain) it's important to ask whether the technology powering your account delivers the right services, or if it's time to change your email provider.

Understanding email technology

Depending on the technology used to power an email address different levels of service are available. These range from simple email delivery to a single email app, through to complete syncing of emails, contacts and diary entries across multiple devices and with added webmail access.

Having a better understanding of email technologies allows people to identify which platform will work best for their email usage, and give them the features they need.

POP3 email

The oldest email technology in common use. It was built for a time when people had a single email address which they accessed from a single email application. When an email is downloaded the original is deleted off the server.

The only copy of an email is the one inside the email app; which makes it impossible to sync email across different devices. For some users this isn't a problem, as they only have one email app anyway. However most people now use multiple devices (such as mobile phones and laptops) to access their emails and POP3 is no longer an adequate solutions.

IMAP email

To address some shortcomings in POP3, IMAP was developed. Instead of downloading the only copy of an email into an app IMAP keeps the original stored on the server.

This means multiple email apps can connect to the same account and email is kept in sync across all of them. However only email is synced. Calendar entries and contact information cannot be synced via IMAP, leaving users with an incomplete syncing solution.

Related technologies such as CalDAV and CardDAV enable syncing of diary entries and contact information. Relying on multiple syncing systems can cause problems, with it being difficult to track down the cause of syncing problems due to the different protocols used.

Free email accounts (such as Gmail) often provide IMAP services to allow email apps to connect to them, although behind the scenes they may not be running on an IMAP platform and instead use secret in-house technology.

SMS office a secure private IMAP email service, which is fully upgradable to Microsoft Exchange in the future.

Microsoft Exchange email

Designed for the needs of business users, Microsoft Exchange delivers a robust email infrastructure. As with IMAP full email syncing between multiple devices is supported as standard, however Exchange also syncs contact and calendar information automatically too — so users aren't reliant on multiple technologies.

Exchange goes further than the other email technologies to provide a rich communication environment that works across multiple devices. This is especially useful for businesses where BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is become more popular and employees are increasingly choosing to use whichever OS and mobile device they wish, with Microsoft Exchange ensuring data is kept in sync.

Microsoft Office 365

There are many flavours of Microsoft Office 365, the most popular of which include email as part of the subscription. All Office 365 email services run on Microsoft Exchange in the background, so all the features of Exchange are available.

The benefits of choosing Office 365 come from the complete bundle of services Microsoft provide. These can include full desktop Office software, OneDrive for Business cloud storage, and other powerful web and business tools depending on the licence chosen.

What about webmail?

Many people use webmail to access their email account. Webmail itself isn't an email platform, instead it is the 'app' used to view and respond to messages. If you are using webmail then some other technology will be running the email service underneath. Often this is IMAP however Exchange also provides a webmail interface for users who prefer accessing their emails this way.

Which is the right email?

The question of which email technology is best depends on what you need from an email account. Few people these days are happy to have their email only on one device so POP3 is rarely suitable to modern email users.

Thanks to its email syncing abilities, IMAP is often considered 'good enough' for general, consumer use. Where it falls down is the lack of built-in sync for additional information such as calendars or address book contacts.

In business, Microsoft Exchange is the most popular choice of platforms. The ability to sync all information between multiple devices means users always have the right information to hand and can respond to messages quickly. In addition, Exchange is a platform which allows other technologies to be added later. Such as SharePoint for private cloud storage and building intranets, or Lync for instant messaging and virtual conferences.

It's worth taking a moment to ask yourself if your email system is fit for purpose. If so, then great, if not it may be time to look at changing to another email technology that will deliver the service you need.

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