In Thinking About Email Consolidation Strategies, I outlined my desire to simplify the email quagmire in which I've found myself by consolidating multiple accounts on different services into a smaller and more manageable subset of services. Aside from simply closing unwanted accounts, there are two basic ways to do this, I noted: Via the cloud and via PC- and mobile device-based email apps.

On the cloud side, you set up a master email account to pull mail from other, secondary accounts. Or do it in reverse, by forwarding email from one or more sub-accounts to your primary account. I've written about both of these approaches, in Email Consolidation: How-To Collect Email From Other Accounts and Email Consolidation: How-To Forward Email to Other Accounts, respectively.  In this article, I'd like to turn my attention to client-based email account consolidation.

It's important to remember that these two separate approaches--cloud- and client-based consolidation--are not mutually exclusive. In fact, depending on how many email accounts you're consolidating, you may wish to use a combination of these approaches, consolidating in the cloud in some cases, and on the client in others. That said, my advice is to consolidate aggressively in the cloud when possible, however, since client consolidation--as you'll see--requires a lot of configuration, and you'll need to repeat these configuration changes each time you reinstall Windows or reset your mobile device. So the more consolidation you've done in the cloud, the less you'll need to do (repeatedly) on the client.

And speaking of clients, I should mention upfront that I'll only be covering the latest email clients from Microsoft here. That means Windows Live Mail 2011 on the Windows 7 desktop and the newly improved Mail app in Windows Phone 7.5 (previously codenamed "Mango"). Yes, I know Windows Phone 7.5 isn't shipping publicly yet, but this is the SuperSite for Windows, where the focus is on the future. So there's no reason in focusing on the past now, though much of what I'll discuss on the mobile side--especially account configuration--applies to the original shipping version of Windows Phone 7 too. (As with any how-to, the basics of this approach will of course work similarly on other email clients.)

(Why not Outlook? Outlook configuration is actually very similar to that of Windows Live Mail, but it's not free and as readily available to all Windows users. Note, however, that you will need to use Outlook if you wish to access an Exchange account--including Exchange Online in Office 365--using a native Windows application on the PC.)

One other note before we get started. While cloud-based consolidation doesn't really address a very related pressing need--consolidation of contacts, calendar, and tasks--consolidating via a client will sometimes provide this ability as well, and that's one of many reasons to consider this approach. As always in life, however, there are complications. And depending on the account types you choose, even client consolidation may not bring over your contacts, calendar items, and tasks. So I'll be looking at these issues separately in future articles in this series too.

In my previous two articles about cloud-based email consolidation, I focused on Gmail and Hotmail because they're both free and very popular. While I'll continue that focus here, I'm also going to examine several other popular email services in order to show the differences in how different account types work in Windows 7 and Windows Phone.

But first, a word about email (and contact and calendar) storage.

Use the cloud for storage and clients as your access points only

One the more controversial aspects of Windows Phone 7 was that Microsoft was, for the first time, forcing customers to utilize only cloud-based email (and contacts and calendar) services, since Windows Phone was the first version of Microsoft's mobile platform (dating back to the original Windows CE from 1996) that didn't sync with its desktop email client, Outlook. While the debate over that decision rages on, one thing is clear (to me, at least): Microsoft made the right choice. And I hope it never backs down from this decision.

From a theoretical standpoint, the old data storage model put Outlook in the center. You would store your email, contacts, and calendar items in Outlook, manage that data from Outlook, and then sync it out to a mobile client, perhaps a Windows Mobile device. That model made sense. In 1999.

Today, our data is in the cloud, so cloud storage is at the center of this more modern model of data management. And each client--be it a PC or mobile web interface, a Windows application, or a mobile app--is simply a window into that data. Yes, you can sync all or some of that data to one or more of those clients, if you'd like, essentially replicating or backing up the data for security purposes. But the point is that you should have one master copy of your data, and that any time any change is made to that data--no matter where that change is made from--the one master copy of the data should be changed, and then reflected, automatically, in any client you use to access that data.

Luddites and those with poor and/or expensive Internet connections will complain that this system is, perhaps, a little too forward leaning. And that, in their case at least, such a system punishes those who prefer for some reason to micro-manage their data on a local PC. These people are wrong. Storing data like this in the cloud is the right thing to do, regardless of your connection, and since it's only PIM (Personal Information Management) data we're talking about here--i.e. email, contacts, and calendar--even a dial-up connection would be sufficient to make this type of data transfer. So doing so regularly over a poor 3G or Wi-Fi connection isn't really an issue at all.

The real impetus for this complaint, I think, has more to do with tradition and familiarity. Storing data locally is what we've done forever, dammit, so it must be correct. But it's time to move on, sorry. By all means, do replicate and back up your data locally. I certainly do. And spend entire weekends on this process if you must. But also ensure that the master copy of your data is stored in the cloud, and thus accessible from any PC or device you may choose to use going forward. It's safer there than it is on a single hard drive on a PC in your house.

Well, that's the theory. To understand how this works in reality, consider the two popular email services I've used before as examples. Both Google and Microsoft offer cloud-based email, contacts, and calendar (and tasks) management via their Gmail/Google Calendar and Hotmail services, respectively. Both of these services offer full-featured web-based clients, but also a variety of facilities for accessing the services from mobile devices and on PCs, using native applications.

From here, they go in different directions, and it is precisely the differing capabilities of these services, and how well they work with the clients you want to use, that should factor into your own decisions about which service to use.

For example: Google provides excellent web-based clients for Gmail/Google Calendar on the iPhone and iPad, and nice integration with native mobile apps on iOS (iPhone/iPad), Windows Phone, and Android. But if you intend to access Gmail/Google Calendar using native Windows applications on a PC, you're a bit stuck. Yes, you can easily configure Gmail in Outlook or Windows Live Mail, but only the email part. If you want to get your Gmail-based contacts into either application, you'll need to export/import, and while the resulting client-based contacts list would reflect the master copy in the cloud, temporarily, it won't sync over time as you make changes on either side. This is a huge problem and goes against the basic tenets of centralized cloud-based PIM management. For Google Calendar, it's even more confusing: Google offers a way to sync Google Calendar with Outlook, and that works fine. But it doesn't work with Windows Live Mail at all.

On the Microsoft side, Microsoft's Hotmail-based email, contacts, and calendar data is of course fully compatible with its desktop PC applications, Outlook and Windows Live Mail. So no worries there. Too, Microsoft offers full integration with Windows Phone 7.5, so again, this is an ideal mix. (Which makes sense: Microsoft's cloud services should work well with the company's PC applications and mobile apps.) Venture into iOS and Android, however, and things get a bit murkier. (Though the upcoming iOS 5 release offers awesome Hotmail integration.) And while Microsoft's PC-based web apps are great, their mobile web apps aren't very good at all.

I've been using Gmail/Google Calendar for years, but given my preference for the Microsoft side of the fence, I think you can see why I'm currently moving away from the Google solutions and towards Microsoft's. They just work better together. But your needs will vary, and you should investigate whether the services you prefer work well with the PC applications and web apps you use or plan to use as well. Not doing so will often lead to disappointment, as with a friend who spent months pining for Windows Phone to appear on Verizon. It did, and he bought one immediately, only to be surprised when he discovered that the Yahoo! PIM stuff he uses is only very partially supported on this platform: Email, yes, but not contacts and calendar, both of which he relies on. A bit of research there would have gone a long way, and he could have spent some of the time leading up to the Verizon Windows Phone availability migrating his PIM data to a more compatible account type. (That I wrote a book about this is, of course, part of the irony here.)

OK, let's see what it looks like when you combine popular PIM services with Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7.5.

Consolidating Email in Windows 7

Email consolidation on the PC is as simple as configuring an email client application like Windows Live Mail with two or more email accounts. But as you'll see, each account type provides access to different services, and in the case of email, each only supports certain protocols. We'll get to that in a moment. But first, you should understand why this kind of consolidation is desirable.

Both Windows Live Mail and Outlook 2010 offer a nicety that makes multi-account management even easier. In Windows Live Mail, this nicety is called Quick Views, and in the top left of the navigation pane, you'll see this area with a variety of built-in views, which are essentially virtual folders that aggregate the content of multiple physical folders in different email services. The most crucial, perhaps, is Unreal Mail. This little wonder will display only your unread mail, obviously, but here's the kicker: This isn't unread mail from a single account. It's unread mail from all of your accounts, available in a single view.

wlm_quickviews_0

What this provides is a single view into all of your email without requiring you to actually combine those different accounts as you would if you collected or forwarded all of your mail in the cloud. For some, this will be a more desirable approach.

OK, let's look at some common PIM services and see how they fare in Windows Live Mail.

Hotmail

Email: YES
Contacts: YES
Calendar: YES

Windows Live Mail is designed primarily as a client for Hotmail, and it provides a full-featured experience with access to Hotmail-based email, contacts, and calendar items. The first time you run Windows Live Mail, it will prompt you to set up an email account, and for a Hotmail-type account, you can simply sign-in with your Windows Live ID and Windows Live Mail will auto-configure the account.

Hotmail configuration of simple and full-featured because Windows Live Mail natively understands Hotmail, and not just the email bits.

Gmail

Email: YES (IMAP or POP3)
Contacts: No
Calendar: No

Though Gmail provides an excellent contacts manager and, via Google Calendar, an equally full-featured calendar service, neither of those entities are natively compatible with Windows Live Mail. So you can only consolidate Gmail-based email with Windows Live Mail, not calendar or contacts. (You can integrate Google Calendar, but not contacts, with Microsoft Outlook using the free Google Calendar Sync utility.)

One note on email protocols: While you can use either Google over IMAP or POP3 with Windows Live Mail, IMAP is the more modern and preferable protocol, and the one you should always choose, since this option works properly within the cloud-based management model. That is, configured with IMAP, Windows Live Mail will provide a view into the cloud-based email, and any changes you make from the client are reflected in the cloud automatically. With POP3, you're not seeing a perfect copy of the cloud-based email, and you may inadvertently download your mail to the client, deleting it from the cloud.

Exchange/Exchange Online/Office 365

Email: No
Contacts: No
Calendar: No

Microsoft's Exchange-based PIM servers and services are not compatible with Windows Live Mail. If you wish to access Exchange from a native Windows application, you will need to use Microsoft Outlook.

Yahoo!

Email: No (free account), YES (POP3 only with paid Yahoo! Mail Plus at $20 per year)
Contacts: No
Calendar: No

Yahoo! Mail is the most limited of mainstream, web-based email services and the free version offers no integration with Windows-based email clients like Windows Live Mail. If you step up to Yahoo! Mail Plus  service for $20 per year, you only gain access to POP3 client access and not the more desirable IMAP protocol. Yahoo! Mail's contacts and Yahoo! Calendar are not available through Windows Live Mail at all.

Other accounts: IMAP and POP3

Email: YES
Contacts: No
Calendar: No

Windows Live Mail is compatible with any email account that provides IMAP or POP3 access. As noted previously, IMAP is generally preferable. But note too that the IMAP and POP3 protocols are for mail only. So enabling any email service with IMAP or POP3 will not provide client access to contacts or calendar.

Consolidating Email in Windows Phone 7.5

Windows Phone 7.5 improves on the decent PIM capabilities first offered in Windows Phone 7.0 in several important ways. First, it supports multiple calendars for accounts that are accessed via Exchange ActiveSync (EAS); this includes Hotmail, Exchange/Exchange Online/Office 365, and even Google Calendar (though that latter one currently requires a workaround). It also provides enhanced Facebook integration, including access to the email-like Facebook Messages interface. And in response to customer feedback, Windows Phone 7.5 also offers a new feature called linked inboxes that, like Quick Views in Windows Live Mail, aggregates the inboxes from two or more email accounts into a single view.

The really nice thing about linked inboxes, I think, is that you can mix and match. On Windows Phone 7.0, each time you configured an account with email support (Windows Live [Hotmail], "Outlook"--really Exchange/Exchange Online/Office 365 or any other EAS-type account, Yahoo! Mail, Google, Other Account, or Advanced Setup), the system would create a new instance of the Mail app for that account. So if you configured three email-based accounts, you'll see three Mail apps on the phone.

You can still do this in Windows Phone 7.5. Or, you can link two or more inboxes into a single instance of the Mail app. Or, as alluded to above, you can mix and match. Let's say you have four email accounts configured on Windows Phone 7.5: Gmail, Exchange (for work), and two Hotmail accounts. You could, for example, link Gmail and the two Hotmail accounts into a single inbox, perhaps with a name like Personal Mail. But you could also keep that work-based Exchange account separate, for logical reasons. In this case, you'd see two Mail apps on your phone, one for work, one for personal.

With linked inboxes, you get the same view-based client consolidation of email on the phone as the Quick Views feature provides in Windows 7. That is, even though the accounts are not consolidated in the cloud and are in fact separate, you can think of them and work with them as a single, aggregated entity. Or not. It's your choice.

As with a Windows-based PC, Windows Phone 7.5 provides different levels of functionality depending on the account type. Here's how the common PIM services fare in Windows Phone 7.5.

Hotmail

Email: YES
Contacts: YES
Calendar: YES

As expected, Hotmail support is a first-rate experience in Windows Phone 7.5 with full support for Hotmail-based email, contacts, and calendar (and tasks). And of course, Windows Phone also provides unique integration with other services you may have tied to your Hotmail account and associated Windows Live ID, including Xbox LIVE for games, Zune and Zune Pass for digital music and videos, SkyDrive for photo sharing and online document, and various social networking integration bits.

Note that the Hotmail account type in Windows Phone is called Windows Live.

Gmail

Email: YES
Contacts: YES
Calendar: YES

Windows Phone 7.5 provides relatively full-featured support for Gmail, including contacts and calendars, though you'll need to use a workaround to access multiple calendars from the same account. However, there is one small issue you should be aware of: Unlike the mobile mail apps on Android and iOS, which are aware of the unique differences in Gmail, the Mail app in Windows Phone is not. So if you want to "archive" an email, you'll need to go through a slightly convoluted series of screen presses: Select, Move, Gmail [All Mail]. I've gotten quite used to this system, which requires three taps, but it's certainly not as convenient as a one-tap "archive" command would be.

Note that the Gmail account type in Windows Phone is called Google. And it's possible to configure a Google account using the Outlook account type if you want since Google provides full Exchange ActiveSync compatibility. This is an interesting choice for people who have two or more Gmail-type accounts and

Exchange/Exchange Online/Office 365

Email: YES
Contacts: YES
Calendar: YES

As with Hotmail, all Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) account types get full support on Windows Phone 7.5, with nice email, contacts, and calendar/tasks integration. If the account is based on Office 365, you'll also get SharePoint integration for Office documents and collaboration through the SharePoint WorkSpace Mobile experience in the Office hub.

Note that the Exchange/Exchange Online/Office 365 account type in Windows Phone is called Outlook.

Yahoo!

Email: YES
Contacts: No
Calendar: No

Microsoft only provides support for Yahoo! Mail, not for Yahoo's contacts and calendar data. (Thus the name of the account type, I guess: Yahoo! Mail.) Yahoo! provides IMAP-based access to mail for all of its customers on mobile devices only, and this is true even if you have a free account.

Other accounts: IMAP and POP3

Email: YES
Contacts: No
Calendar: No

Windows Phone 7.5 provides two other general ways to configure various other email accounts, including options titled Other Account and Advanced Setup. Both are email-only type configurations and both will work with any IMAP or POP3 email account. The Advanced Setup will work with any account type, including those that are explicitly supported with specific account types.

Putting it all together

Since going down this path of email consolidation, I've really thought about the ways in which I can combine my various email accounts and still access all of the data that's important to me in simple and obvious ways. And for me, a combination of cloud- and client-based configuration makes the most sense. My general recommendation is to eliminate non-essential accounts and then consolidate in the cloud as much as possible. After that, examine the various ways in which you can access these accounts on the PC (web sites and/or native apps) and on the mobile device(s) you use (mobile web sites and/or native apps), and choose accordingly. I'm still fine-tuning my own approach, but I tend to prefer web apps on the PC and native apps on mobile devices.

Of course, this is still only the tip of the iceberg. While email is generally well-supported across clients of all stripes, consolidating contacts and calendars is often much more complex or even impossible. And that means that you will need to migrate or move your contacts and calendar data from one service to another as part of this consolidation. And that's what I'll be examining next.