Friday, November 2

Archiving Hotmail to Gmail

Since Gmail first arrived on our browsers (way back in 2004 it seems!) it's proven to be an indispensable tool for those who live on email. Like me. The space (it's a rare day when I actually delete a mail now), the interface (non-threaded views are so backward), the ability to search quickly (I don't even bother with labels any more) and a superb spam filter all meant that Gmail literally changed the way I use email.

I restrict my use of Gmail to personal mails between people I know relatively well. For anything else (account creation, formal correspondence and mails to less well known colleagues), I stick to Hotmail. This semantic separation is required in order to keep my Gmail inbox relatively clean and useful. However, inevitably, there are mails in my Hotmail account that should really belong in Gmail - Hotmail isn't really designed for long term storage of mail (well it isn't in my set up anyway), the nature of conversations change over time and it just makes sense to have it all in one place.

Archiving mail to Gmail has been a problem for account holders since the service was introduced. Plenty of solutions have popped up too, from the simple action of forwarding to hacking the Gmail client in order to "inject" mails into its inbox. Both have problems: the former loses formatting and date time information, the latter isn't official and you may lose thread structure or state (whether it's a sent or received mail, for instance). Needless to say, I refrained from using these, hoping that, one day, there'll be a better way.

And now that Gmail supports IMAP, there is. IMAP is a messaging protocol which basically allows you to access your mail remotely (it's much more than that, but for the purposes of this article we'll leave it there). It's kind of like using Hotmail or Gmail outside of the browser and in a normal mail client like Outlook Express or the like.

This remote access means that your folders can follow you around as well as state of your mails - read or unread, flagged, whether it's been sent or not - that kinda thing. All this is fantastic but not relevant for those who simply want to archive mail; until you realise that, by implication of the above, IMAP also allows you to push existing mails up to the IMAP server - in this case Gmail.

Despite its criticisms, Outlook Express remains my email client of choice mainly because it allows native GUI access to Hotmail (via WebDav). It also supports IMAP pretty well too, and so now Gmail, and after setting up both accounts in parallel this "pushing" of mails becomes a simple matter of dragging and dropping mail items between the two accounts.

And it all works brilliantly. I now have Hotmail mails sitting in my Gmail inbox as if they were sent and received using the latter; they are all searchable and threaded, and I've also found that Gmail knows which were sent by me and so automatically places them in the Sent Mail view, found by adding is:sent in a search. More than that, it even merges relevant mails that were sent via Gmail (if I had manually switched providers mid conversation).

It really is magical. And here are some further notes:

  • IMAP Folders are implemented in Gmail by labels. This has both benefits and drawbacks. It's nice to have a more visual feel of labels, but things become complicated when you apply multiple labels to a conversation since they start appearing in two places. Another implication is that you may lose track of whether you've deleted an item or not (deleting from a folder deletes it's label, not the message itself).
  • Flagging a message in your client will star it in Gmail.
  • Authenticating your Hotmail address within Gmail will help the latter to determine the correct to and from addresses when rendering mail items. You can add addresses via the Settings->Accounts->Send mail as screen.
  • Outlook Express has an option to allow you to store special folders on your IMAP server, namely ones for your sent items and drafts. Due to the folder-label mapping Gmail uses, these do not directly map to the equivalent in Gmail. Sent mail gets automatically saved to your Sent Mail view in Gmail anyway, so if you do use this feature they'll end up being stored twice. My advice is to turn off the two folders altogether - you'll only lose the ability to store drafts on the server, but that's a small issue compared to what you do get. You can always move mail items to the [Gmail]/Drafts folder manually (which does map to the Gmail equivalent) if you want to move an unfinished mail around.
Anyway, I'm a happy bunny. At last I've managed to consolidate all my mail in a single, easy to access place. Now all I need to figure out is how to upload all my chat logs since 1997 and I'll be set with respect to archiving my electronic communications.

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