Gmail delivers a knockout punch: IMAP changes the “freemail” game

Not everyone will appreciate it, but Google just upped the ante in the webmail game by rolling out unprecedented free IMAP access for Gmail. Beginning last night, Google began activating IMAP access to all Gmail accounts, and as of this morning plenty (but not all) users are reporting that IMAP access to Gmail is now possible. IMAP isn't a new technology, and it's certainly not loved universally. It does make Gmail that much more accessible on a variety of devices and from multiple locations, however, and it puts Microsoft and Yahoo in the position of needing to play catch-up. HangZhou Night Net

Gmail has allowed access via the web interface or POP access for quite some time now. POP allows e-mail clients to download messages from the server, but doesn't reflect any changes on the server once the messages are manipulated on the client side. So if you download five messages, read four of them, and move three of them to other folders on your desktop e-mail client, those messages will remain unread and unmoved on the Gmail server. When you check the server again from a different device, you have to go through the whole process all over again with the same messages.

Such is not the case with IMAP—any changes you make on the client side are synced back with the server (when a connection is available), so that read items remain read and moved items remain moved on all devices checking that account. In other words, IMAP treats remote folders as if they were local, which is great if you use more than one interface for accessing and organizing your email (say, webmail from work, your iPhone on the road, and a mail client like Thunderbird at home).

Google has a help page up that explains the differences between POP and IMAP, along with instructions on how to set up the latter on your account. IMAP isn't pushmail, and it isn't known for being lightening fast. IMAP is the best widely-supported protocol for multiple access point usage, however.

IMAP not for the weak (servers)

IMAP has been slow to come to free e-mail services for a variety of reasons. In addition to the fact that most users of free email services have been happy with webmail clients and therefore don't care about IMAP, it generally requires more resources per active user on the server side. Because IMAP typically maintains connections between client and server, it requires more bandwidth and processing power to maintain per user. By enabling IMAP, Google is flexing its muscles.

IMAP also encourages users to store messages on the server over the long term—something that POP users do as well, but perhaps not as often or in such high volume, and certainly not in remote folders. IMAP access is thus enabling another way to get at the massive storage capacity offered by Gmail.

Gmail Product Manager Keith Coleman has another theory on why webmail services haven't made IMAP widely available, noting that most (including Google) are at least somewhat dependent upon advertising revenue from their web-based clients. "We thought that was a trend worth breaking," he told Ars. "Initial reaction has been great so far."

While this tidbit of news may not mean anything to casual Gmail users, it's a major feature addition for an otherwise free, publicly-available e-mail service. Not only does it come as a welcome addition to those who make heavy use of Gmail, it will also make a difference to businesses and institutions that use Gmail as part of Google Apps for your Domain. Lots of business users check their e-mail on various handheld devices in addition to a computer or two, so the addition of IMAP will make Google Apps for your Domain a much more attractive service for companies looking for comprehensive, yet easy, e-mail solutions.

While Yahoo and Hotmail have more or less caught up with Google when it comes to offering mass amounts of storage capacity, the addition of IMAP to Gmail will make a big difference in free e-mail services in the future—it likely won't be long before we see IMAP capabilities added to Yahoo and Hotmail, and perhaps even a smattering of smaller e-mail services vying for attention.

As mentioned at the outset, IMAP isn't universally loved. It can be slow, especially over wireless mobile data networks that barely escape dial-up speeds. Yet more access options can't hurt, and judging from reader reports we've received, many of you with mobile devices that support IMAP are already itching for Google to activate your account. If you try it out, let us know your experience in the discussion. We're currently finding the iPhone support to be excellent (over WiFi).

Let open access reign: Verizon relents on legal challenge to FCC

In a surprise move, Verizon has dropped its lawsuit challenging the open access requirement for next January's 700MHz spectrum auction. Earlier this week, the telecom filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss the case filed last month with the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. The motion for dismissal cites the court's decision to deny Verizon's request for an expedited review as the reason for dropping the case, as an unexpedited review is unlikely to be completed prior to the start of the auction. HangZhou Night Net

The rules laid down by the Federal Communications Commission require the high bidder for the "C" band—a highly-desirable 22MHz chunk of spectrum—to allow any lawful device and any lawful application to use the spectrum. As a result, Verizon's current cellular model, which imposes restrictions on the devices and types of content that can be used on the network, won't fly.

When it sued the FCC to have the open access rules overturned, Verizon called the rules "arbitrary" and "capricious," saying that the mandate was "unsupported by substantial evidence and otherwise contrary to law." Verizon's challenge drew criticism not only from advocates of open access, but from some other companies that are expected to bid on the spectrum. Google was especially critical of Verizon, saying that the company didn't believe "consumers deserved more choice" than they currently have.

Other companies have voiced objections to the FCC's auction rules as well. AT&T has asked for clarification on the requirements for Block "D," a chunk of spectrum that would be used for both commercial wireless broadband and public safety access. Frontline, which wanted to run a public/private wireless network using the spectrum, has argued that the FCC's $1.6 billion reserve price for Block D is too high and that the auction rules would make it too easy for a big incumbent like AT&T or Verizon to snap up enough spectrum to result in "unacceptable anticompetitive effects."

Frontline has also attempted to have Verizon barred from participating in the auction for violating the FCC's lobbying rules, citing a September 17 meeting between Verizon, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and some other FCC staffers. Under the FCC's rules, companies are supposed to submit ex parte filings disclosing the nature of these meetings; Frontline called Verizon's single-sentence filing an "arrogant violation" of the rules.

Needless to say, the FCC hasn't barred anyone from participating in the auction, and, earlier this month, the FCC released the final set of rules for the spectrum sell-off. Aside from bumping the auction back eight days to January 24, 2008, there were no changes of note. All that's left is to let the bidding begin and see which of the would-be bidders (including AT&T, Google, Verizon, and Frontline) step up to the auction block.

XBLA Wednesday: Exit the soul of Battlestar Galactica

The streak of double-header Xbox Live Arcade Wednesdays continues this week with the release of two new titles, Exit and Battlestar Galactica. Both are now available and can had at 800 Microsoft Points ($10) each. HangZhou Night Net

Exit is one of the lesser-known, though quite entertaining, PSP titles, and the Xbox Live Arcade port lives up to the off-beat puzzle action of the original. As Mr. ESC, you'll need to move around burning buildings and traps and save the helpless citizens by leading them out of their terrible circumstances while overcoming various puzzles, as inAbe's Odyssey. While the original PSP title was released with only 100 levels, the XBLA touts 220 levels, online leaderboards, and future downloadable content. That's quite an upgrade for $10.

Unfortunately, while the new content adds value and the HD graphics look great, there are still some nagging issues that haunted the PSP version. Originally criticized for some spotty context-sensitive jumping controls, the XBLA version of Exit still suffers from some weird control nuances. These don't wreck the experience, butthey area blemish on an otherwise strong title.

Given how well Wing Commander Arena went over, I can't imagine this week's other release, Battlestar Galactica, will do very well. Though the TV series is popular for its drama and political intrigue (moreso than its combat), the game forgoes story for the sake of top-down space shooting action. Those hoping for some well-integrated use of the Battlestar lore are in for a disappointment. While there may be some familiar sights in the form of backdrops and vehicles, the game does little to maintain the frantic, humans-against-the-universe feel that the series is so well known for. If you can look past that, there's a serviceable albeit somewhat slow-paced top-down, free-roaming space shooter to find—not exactly what fans will want as they await the fourth and final season.

Exit is definitely the choice for the week. If you haven't played the title yet, do yourself a favor and pick it up. Even with the control problems, it's still a lot of fun to play.

Game Review: Rockstar Games Table Tennis (Wii)

This is another port for the Wii that we've basically reviewed before in its Xbox 360 incarnation, so now that Table Tennis is out for the Wii the only thing that needs to be talked about is the control scheme. Everything else, sans online play, is the same as the Xbox 360 version. Sure, the graphics are downgraded, but almost everything you need to know about the game can be found in our big review of the original title. HangZhou Night Net

A Table Tennis game seems like a natural fit for the Wii, but other people have gotten Wii controls wrong before. Luckily, Table Tennis hit this one over the net. There are nice tutorials that allow you to practice each technique, and you'll need them; it takes some practice to learn how you're supposed to move the Wiimote to aim the ball correctly. The game does not feature 1:1 movement, you basically swing in different directions to aim the ball. If you want the ball to go to the upper left hand corner, you swing up and to the left. Close to the net on the right hand side? Swing down and to the right. I had problems when I tried to control the game with large, sweeping movements, but once I started to hold the Wiimote like a Table Tennis paddle while making tighter movements it all became clear. Give yourself a few minutes to get used to the controls, and you'll see that while they're not instantly intuitive, they do work very well.

Holding the Wiimote in front of you to make these short swings sounds easy, but with volleys getting longer and longer as you play don't be surprised if you break a sweat. With the Wiimote-only control scheme you add spin with the d-pad, and the computer moves your player for you. If you add a nunchuck you can move your character yourself, but that gets hard to keep track of very quickly. In a third control setup you can use the nunchuk to add fine control of where your ball lands, but that's only for people with insanely talented hands. These are the three control methods, and while I prefer the default Wiimote-only controls, the other two with the nunchuk can be fun if only to test yourself.

There is no online play (boo!), but playing with another person in the room is a great time as you knock the ball back and forth. It feels oddly like an actual game of Table Tennis, and things can get intense very quickly.

At $40, this is a little less expensive than your average game. So if you're looking for something a little more in-depth than Wii Tennis, thenthis is a great buy. And it isn't a bad workout, either. It's good to turn on the Wii again.

Status: Buy
Price: $39.99
System: Nintendo Wii
Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Take 2
ESRB Ratings: Everyone
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Cornucopia of Leopard t-shirts available for launch

With Leopard dropping this week, there is no shortage of new Apple-themed apparel going on sale or being given away for free. Apple will, of course, be giving away its own shirts to the first 500 visitors in each of its stores Friday afternoon, but the thread doesn't stop there. HangZhou Night Net

FastMac, purveyors of all manner of Mac upgrades, has announced that it will be giving away four new Leopard-themed t-shirts outside various Apple Stores on Friday from 4 to 6 pm. Three of the shirt designs are featured and available for order at a deep discount of just $7.99 at FastMac's site. The designs include geeky cultural puns like "Hasta la Vista," "Mac to the Future," "A whole new Xperience," and "300 – Madness? This is LEOPARD!," though the latter is oddly not pictured or available for order yet.

Next up is MacMerc with a couple of shirts, the first of which is called "Top Secret." This is a simple design that hones in on Leopard's original shroud of secrecy. MacMerc's second Leopard-themed t-shirt, called "Mac OS X Leopard: Time Machine," also riffs off the Back to the Future theme.

Last, but probably not least, is a set of Apple, Mac, and general tech-themed shirts that you need to vote into existence. Insanely Great Tees is back with another five shirts that it wants hopeful owners to weigh in on. The shirts that get the most clicks will go to print, and choices range from an illustrated "Any" key to a graphical timeline of Apple's first 30 product years. There are even anthropomorphized i-gadgets playing music.

With Apple's popularity showing no signs of slowing down lately, these probably won't be the only ways for Apple fans to don new threads to express their inner geeks. Who knows, maybe even Think Geek will unveil an Apple-centric shirt or two in the coming months.