Monday 19 September 2011

NTL/Virgin Emails Going Missing

The problem with being a software developer is that sometimes you [think you] know too much and, as the old saying goes, a little knowledge can be dangerous. Such was the case with a bizarre email problem my wife seemed to be having with her new iPhone…

She told me that emails were going missing. Now we all know that end users see the world in a different light to developers and so the first thing I did was to put aside her interpretation of the problem and get some cold hard facts. She swore there were emails she’d seen on her iPhone that hadn’t come through to Outlook on the desktop machine, even though a cursory glance didn’t show up any obvious casualties. So we left it that she would keep an eye out and investigate again when the problem knowingly resurfaced.

No doubt at this point anyone who knows anything about setting up email accounts will be shouting “Leave messages on the server”. This was my gut instinct too - that the iPhone was defaulting (or had been overridden) to delete messages from the server after retrieval. Up to this point I’d had zero experience with smart phones and so it took a little longer than usual to convince me that this wasn’t happening. I naturally did a little Googling too to see if this was a known issue with iPhones but nothing showed up.

A month or so later she commented that it was still happening and so we took another look. This time she did an extensive comparison between her various email accounts (she has many because of her freelance nature) and it transpired that it was only happening with her Virgin Media account (what was originally called NTL). This new information made the problem much more specific and it triggered me remembering something about Virgin changing the email system a while back so that they were using Google under the covers, or something like that. And so once again I fired up Google, this time armed with some additional keywords.

Many of the results still seemed to be about the opposite problem caused by the “Leave messages on server” setting. But finally I found one that seemed to mirror my wife’s problem and it talked about something called “recent mode”. This didn’t look like a standard POP feature but sounded more like a workaround NTL/Virgin might have added to the email system for the problem of multiple devices trying to access the same mailbox, e.g. desktop + smart phone. At the time I couldn’t find an official word on the subject, but I’ve since revisited the problem with my new phone and found this page on the Virgin Media site[*].

On the one hand I was somewhat relieved to discover that my reasonable knowledge of POP and email wasn’t totally flawed but my diagnostic skills certainly took more of a bashing. My early assumption was that internet mail is well understood and so the problem must be device specific. Add to this my wife’s complaint about iPhones’ only supporting one Exchange server and it only strengthened my prejudice against Apples’ implementation. However once the finger was pointing to a single email provider as well things were easier. Of course now I know about “recent mode” it’s a doddle to find those articles again and the relevant page of Virgins’ web site :-)


[*] This workaround is not without its own problems. One side-effect is that you can see the same email multiple times, even after the initial fetch, depending on what email client you’re using.


  1. I'm certainly going to look at doing that now, but at the time it was hard to justify that kind of switch when your email has been working percectly fine with the same settings for over 10 years!

    Having never needed to enter the murky waters of mobile email and the problems it brings I clearly need to read up on what IMAP buys me as it's not obvious. The only time I've ever used it in the past was to trawl a spam mailbox looking for false positives.

  2. Wikipedia: "...E-mail clients using IMAP generally leave messages on the server until the user explicitly deletes them. This and other characteristics of IMAP operation allow multiple clients to manage the same mailbox. ..."

    Cheers, Martin

  3. Thanks Martin. This is the behaviour that always concerns me though. When I delete an email I just want the cached email to be removed from that email client; I still want to recieve the email on the other clients. I get the impression that with IMAP the deletion will affect the actual mailbox and so I won't see it on the other clients later. Is that right? Or do email clients handle this differently?

  4. Hi Chris,

    This is indeed the (desired) behaviour.

    Let's call it the difference between a location-centric view (POP) and an information-centric view (IMAP).

    Suppose you read and maybe handle e-mail from a computer at home, a computer at work and from a phone or tablet. Then, in the location-centric way of working you get to act on each new e-mail trice. This seems less than optimal.

    With for example Getting Things Done (GTD), you would act on each new message once, for example: handle it Now, file it for Action, file it to Wait on someone else, Archive it, or Delete it. Done Done: Inbox is empty ;)

    IMAP enables you to organize your e-mail in centrally stored folders. It also lets you move messages between (folders of) different accounts easily (e.g. drag&drop).

    Cheers, Martin
    (GTD weblinks at bottom)