iPhone iOS4 IMAP mail syncing problems

Market musicianI offer this account of trying to address a known (and I would say, severe) bug in the iPhone 4 mail software, in case it's helpful to others:

Ever since I upgraded my iPhone to IOS4 (the latest version of the phone's operating system), the Mail application has been flaky when it comes to syncing mail messages via IMAP. Duplicate messages, empty/blank messages, messages dated 12/31/1969, messages that are deleted and then re-appear, and so on.

At first I thought it might be my phone hardware, which had been cursed from the beginning (a story for another time), but after that phone died and Apple replaced it with a brand new one with fresh firmware and settings, and it STILL happened, I was convinced it's the software on the phone.  Other people are having the same issue all over the place.  But it can be hard to make Apple believe this - said the Apple Genius Bar worker at the Apple Store in Chicago, "they're probably all just using the phone wrong."  Wha?

So I decided to look at the source code of the iPhone mail program to see if I could find the problem, but Apple doesn't make that source code available.

So I decided to turn on the Mail program's debugging options to have it output the results of the IMAP sync sessions, but it turns out the Mail program doesn't have any debugging options.

So I decided to look at the log files on the phone's operating system to see if they reported any software issues I could address, but actually I can't look at those log files even if they exist because Apple doesn't let you look behind the scenes.

So I decided to report the issue on the project mailing list that all of the iOS4 developers monitor, and it turns out that no such mailing list exists.

So I decided to go report the issue to Apple to see if they can help.

After submitting a case online, I was called back in 27 seconds (FAST!) and talked to Chris from Apple, who works in iPhone support.  He was very good at gauging my level of tech savvy and talking to me at an appropriate level, so he quickly confirmed that I'd already done all of the normal troubleshooting steps they recommend.  I asked him if this was a known bug, and he said not as far as he could tell.

Chris then connected me with Shawn who is a senior adviser on the iPhone tech support team.  Shawn told me that in fact I had identified a known bug with the iOS4 firmware.  VINDICATION!  He said that they've mostly been seeing it in gMail syncing issues, but that they're aware of it as a wider IMAP issue.

I asked Shawn for the unique identifier number for the bug so that I could go follow the progress of a fix on their public bug tracking system, but it turns out that Apple doesn't publish information about known bugs until they're fixed.

I asked Shawn how I could learn more information about when this would be addressed or other recommended fixes in the meantime, and he said I would just have to wait and see.

(Chris and Shawn at Apple were excellent tech support reps within the confines of what they're allowed to do and say.)

Bottom line: these are the horrors of using a closed-source, proprietary product for a key piece of tech functionality in my life.

What Apple can do better:

  • Test its Mail software's IMAP syncing functionality more thoroughly before releasing it to production.
  • Publish information about known software/hardware issues BEFORE they're resolved so that people having those issues can see what's up and possibly even contribute to the resolution.
  • Train its store Genius Bar workers so that they don't dismiss a legitimate complaint about functionality problems with smiling condescension.
  • I'm pushing it here, but hey, it's my blog: release the source code for iOS and related applications.

If you've had this issue with your iPhone, or similar software/hardware troubleshooting experiences with other vendors, feel free to share in the comments.

Update 9/17/2010: After installing iOS 4.1 a week or so ago, all of the IMAP syncing issues seem to have gone away.  I've seen a few reports that problems remain for others, but it's clear that this release included some fixes for the mail application that weren't described in the release notes.

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Chris Hardie

Chris Hardie is an Internet tech geek, problem solver, community-builder and amicable cynic.

42 thoughts on “iPhone iOS4 IMAP mail syncing problems”

  1. Interesting... I've had no issues with imap with my gmail and work accounts from my iPod Touch running IOS4. I'd think it was the same application but perhaps not...

  2. I ran into the gmail sync issue on my iPod Touch (most recent hardware) after upgrading to iOS4, and I still get it on occasion. Today for example, I had 7 messages suddenly pop up that I had deleted yesterday, and two blank emails dated from 1970 (time capsule, anyone?).

  3. Thanks for this. I've experienced the same problem with a university-hosted IMAP email account using iOS4. The issues I've seen: If a message is "loaded" on the iPhone and then deleted on another machine (i.e. iMac or Macbook), the deleted message remains on the iPhone. When I delete it on the iPhone, I will literally see two identical messages in the Trash. Also, there are strange issues with improper syncs - simply not updating with the server appropriately, particularly when emails are organized by thread. Major, major bug IMO. Apple needs to get on this. My guess is that introducing the thread option threw a wrench in what was otherwise (prior to iOS4) a solid, clean mail app.

  4. Similar issue here--IMAP "view" of the mailbox on iOS4 is not correct compared to the real mailbox and other IMAP readers. I haven't had blank messages (yet), but when messages are deleted from the message store, the IMAP reader doesn't seem to be able to pick this up. It's more of an annoyance than a crippling bug right now, but it is a sign of a seriously broken client. The server in this case is a very old one (PMDF IMAP), so I suspect that someone coding the IMAP client made a change assuming a particular server behavior without consulting the RFCs or testing across more than a few IMAP servers.

  5. Is this where I say, I really really like my old landline telephone, the one with the curly cord attached to the phone itself? Okay, maybe not.

  6. Thanks for this post. I've been experiencing all these problems in Mail on iOS4 when using IMAP for GMail. None of these problems existed before iOS4.

    I've tried using Exchange Sync instead. That fixes these problems, but introduces a whole load more.

  7. I thought I was going crazy. I am so happy to hear other people are having this issue. It seems like only certain messages get stuck on my iPhone and do not show up on all my other IMAP clients because they have been deleted. The only way to get them out of the iPhone is to delete them there.

    There has to be an issue with the Mail program on IOS4 if the views of the messages are not the same only on the phone. Come on Apple. Fix this.

  8. Interestingly, the problem *suddenly* stopped for me yesterday. I haven't had a single problem with GMail IMAP on iOS4 since the end of 16 August.

    I wonder whether Google have worked out a way to patch things up at their end. They may not have been doing anything wrong, but they may have spotted something that they do that the iOS4 Mail app doesn't handle right.

  9. My wife have had this problem, and today I decided to Google my way to a solution. Ended up here among other sites. The problem and solution seems to be related to notes syncing over IMAP. I don't know if iOS3 did sync notes, but iOS4 surely does. My wife said to me that everytime she wrote a note, she got it mailed back to herself. After that she also got one of these famous blank mails dated 1970, or actually it problably was a note, not a mail hence looking strange in the inbox. We've now turned notes syncing off in the IMAP account settings.

  10. I currently have the same issue! Which is really annoying since I have become dependant on the iPhone e-mail syncing for work.

    Not only does the mail stop syncing, but my iPhone 3GS (iOS4) has started to lose calendar bookings (both for gmail and exchange server sync).

    This issue needs to be resolved ASAP as a consumers using iPhone for work I can not accept unreliable e-mail/calendar syncing!

    1. Same problems here.
      Both gmail and exchange just wo'nt work. No sync at all. ARRRG!
      iPhone 3GS and OS 4.3.5 (8L1). Problem started last week...

  11. Here's some more information.

    If I delete the messages on my Mac laptop, they are removed from my iPhone. Figures.

    BUT. If I delete them from Outlook or a Webmail program, the don't come off my iPhone and I have to manually delete them there again.

  12. I decided to change my mail accounts to IMAP since it is more convinient when using three devices (MBP, Ipad and Iphone 4). It works great will all accounts but one.
    I get the new mail allright but older mail left on the server is randomly shown on the Iphone. From yesterday only one.
    At first I thought it was the Iphone. But using that same account on the Ipad gives me the same result.
    On my MBP all mail are present - even older than today's.

  13. Having similar problems with my IMAP server (non-gmail). Messages that are read on my desktop or laptop (also Macs) will continue to appear unread on my iphone pretty much indefinitely, weird glitches with messages being deleted and returning from the dead... glad to see that this is a documented problem... sad to see that it's basically buried until someday when it maybe gets fixed?

  14. i'm using IMAP (not google). with 4.02 on my 3G iPhone, a new "sent mail" folder appeared on my iPhone and in MacMail. Mail sent from my iPhone appears in one and mail sent from MacMail appears in the other.

    My small-buisness email provider can't fix it.

    Very frustrated.

  15. I've had the exact same problem on my 3gs since ios4. My webhost's imap-server. Deleted messages on outlook is left on the iphone. Ios 4.1 just came out. Any bug fix on this included?

  16. Yup - having the same problem with the date issue. But it's more pesky to me than bothersome. The real problem I've run into is my calendar being completely wiped out when I sync it. Now I want to upgrade to 4.1 and had to manually copy all of my upcoming appointments into my Yahoo calendar, in case I'm wiped out again. That is maddening!

  17. Did the update, Gmail no problem but huge problems with Exchange. Mainly that server did not manage to connect.
    Did the new profile as stated in other comments but lost all contacts, email etc. on the iPhone (3GS with IOS4). Having my backup on the MacBook but this doesn't help me because as stated by others, depending on mobile email! hope Apple comes up with a global solution soon.

  18. I have the same problem with my 3GS running iOS 3. I've held off updating to iOS4 because Apple have proven not able of securing things staying functional.

    Never the less, I've had the 3GS for a year and right from the beginning (more or less) I've had emails on exchange server not being properly updated for read/unread. Emails read on laptop client doesn't get marked as read on iPhone. Very frustrating when you start having thousands of unread emails as a consequence.

    Strange thing is that suddently, a couple of months ago, all emails disappaered, and then returned a cpouple of days later, but now correctly marked for read/unread.

    Since then, the problem reappears now and then. Weird!!

    Exchange server is 2007 i believe, and I think they recently updated it to 2010. Never had any problem at all vs Gmail acocunt, but then again, I haven't activated push on that account.

    Hope someone finds a solution soon and lets us all have a functioning email app. Kind of a minimum requirement for PDA.

  19. I'm running iOS 4.1 and having similar issues with recent imap mail messages not showing up. About 6 months of email messages are missing. Its only showing a few test messages I wrote to myself today and then the next message is 6 months old.

  20. i've had the same problems (one account sent me the same email for about 7 times) after updating the OS. but only for one day (so far).

    my bigger problem is, that i've got an email account from my university (imap, as well) and the iphone says the certificate is untrustworthy. not a problem so far. i know the source and just have to accept it manually. but since the new OS the freakin pop ups occur every time i refresh my mails. no matter whether i press "continue", "details" or "cancel". when i press continue and accept the certificate sometimes the pop up occurs directly after it again. sometimes i have to accept it several times in seconds.

    that's one freaky bug. i now have deactivated the account because sometimes it even makes writing an email nearly impossible since those notifications pop up again and again.

    why do i have a smartphone that doesn't check my emails properly? i also use a mac and i'm very happy with all the fanboy design stuff and i love os x. but at some point apple finally has to be screwed up somewhere. especially when it takes month or even years till arrogant steve jobs accepts this as a problem that needs to be dealt with (remember that antennagate prob "you are holding it wrong!" lol).

  21. IOS 4.2.1 on iPhone 4 not working properly.

    Mail on Mac and Mail on iPhone not seeing the same messages via IMAP (not gmail BTW). Mac Mail rebuild seemed to help on Mac. iPhone does not retrieve the correct last xx messages - mixing recent ones with ones many months old.

  22. I bought a new iPhone 4 and upgraded software on my macbook to accommodate. I've been sorting bugs ever since. It seems the last, hopefully, is this IMAP question and why it doesn't work. My iPhone 3G with Tiger did great. This sucks! The message I get is; The mail server "imap.gmail.com" is not responding. Verify that you have entered the correct account info in Mail settings. The settings are correct. I don't know what else to do. Hard to believe that Apple has monitored this for so long and hasn't addressed the issue with customers. My loyalty will only go so far. I'm the one who defends their product at the office with all the crackberry's around laughing. I'm paying for it more ways than one. Help, anyone?

  23. Me too have got issues with IMAP on Gmail... I thought I did something wrong... hope the upgrade will defenitely solve the problem because this is driving me mad!

  24. IOS4.3 still has IMAP bug. Resurfaced after IOS upgrade. Then went away. Now back after sending a reply mail from iPhone. Mail sorting is crazy - 2 from today and some from months to years ago appearing in last 25 messages. Have filed bug report but no further clues. Come on Apple, please fix this....

  25. 4.3.2 still has this issue for me.

    I've also had a lot of random issues with IMAP servers in general. This is the biggest issue so far for me though...

  26. Disable IDLE in your client for your IMAP account (under OS X: Mail -> Preferences... -> [select account] -> Advanced -> Uncheck "Use IDLE command if the server supports it".)

    I think IDLE causes issues if you sync multiple clients from the same IP address.

  27. OMG! u have this weird bug on my iPod touch 4G 4.3.1 and its given me like 2,000+ of these dating Thursday, 1970 (I wast even Born!), 2001 and 2010.... and one with an attachment and no date! and one with several threads..... And now jsut now! The mails just dissaperaed.... How cool...... but it took around 1 hour after i connected to internet.......

  28. Changing IDLE setting didn't seem to make much difference. iPhone mail still does not correctly load last 25 messages mixing recent ones with ones years old.

  29. I have the same problem. The mail i get is from 1970 and sometimes even older. I hope with IOS 5 every problem will be solved
    Regards
    Marc
    The Netherlands

  30. So my yahoo calendar syncs fine with my iPhone 3G, all appts there, no problem. But my iPhone 4 has many appts missing 🙁 after I try to add them directly to the phone they stay there but they dissappear on the next sync. ???.
    ALL APPTS are in my yahoo calendar but they _will not sync_ properly to my iPhone 4 (some do, some of them will not). Very frustrating. Updated software from 4.2.8 to 4.2.10...tried a few things but same results. Also set calendar to sync 6 months back, we're in August, all appts synched ok back to March but Feb won't, which is fine thought i was good but now sync spinning dial won't stop spinning! Left it overnight for about 4 hours and that thing spun and spun, I can just imagine what it's doing to my battery. Hope they fix this soon.
    Also get the 1969 emails every now and again.

  31. So my yahoo calendar syncs fine with my iPhone 3G, all appts there, no problem. But my iPhone 4 has many appts missing after I try to add them directly to the phone they stay there but they dissappear on the next sync. ???.
    ALL APPTS are in my yahoo calendar but they _will not sync_ properly to my iPhone 4 (some do, some of them will not). Very frustrating. Updated software from 4.2.8 to 4.2.10...tried a few things but same results. Also set calendar to sync 6 months back, we're in August, all appts synched ok back to March but Feb won't, which is fine thought i was good but now sync spinning dial won't stop spinning! Left it overnight for about 4 hours and that thing spun and spun, I can just imagine what it's doing to my battery. Hope they fix this soon.
    Also get the 1969 emails every now and again

  32. This is not just an APPLE issue. I just want to say that when I had the Droid (first one) that I got endless emails from December 31, 1969. I ended up deleting all email accounts from my phone as I would get 50 of them in ONE DAY. Since getting my iPhone (using the same email accounts as on the Droid) I have NEVER gotten them. Not one...just wanted to say it's not just APPLE.

  33. I have an iphone3G and have similar problem. I have a calendar event I cannot get rid of. I've deleted it in ICal but it self-replicates on my phone. It was originally a month-long all-day event. So it self-replicates 30 times each day everyday for the last six months. The original event is long-past over but my calendar just keeps moving it forward. I tried calling apple tech and they said I needed to take the phone to a genius bar. I did that and was told the problem was with ICal however, it doesn't appear in ICal - only on my phone. So either it's hidden in ICal somewhere or a problem with my phone. I've tried stripping my phone of all info but when I sync anew, back comes the event. It's extremely annoying and I wish I new the solution.

  34. I'm experiencing very similar problems with Having recently setup imap accounts on my iPhone 3GS

    Emails I receive and delete on my iPhone reappear in the inbox almost immediately although marked as read

    They also appear in deleted messages in multiples of how many times they are deleted

    If I delete a message 3 times it appears in deleted messages 3 times as well as reappearing in my inbox

    Messages moved to different folders also behave in this way, moving to the folder before reappearing in my inbox

    All of this is ionly resolved once I check and update my email account on my mac or windows laptop

    Driving me mad as I am left inundated with emails I have deleted or moved on my iPhone, reappearing in my inbox until I can access the mail account from a mac or pc

    Any help you can offer appreciated as my own hosting company are unable to offer any more advice

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