Some Thoughts on Push Email

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Having spent three weeks using Push Email, Ewan has some thoughts on just how useful the poster child of the new smartphones actually is.

Some people come back from a three week conference jaunt around the USA with a massive Texan cowboy hat, a truckload of American flags and tales of riding aircraft bareback through south Florida thunderstorms. Some people, but not me. A few of you have noticed my absence in the last few weeks, but I now come back bearing the gift of knowledge. For the three weeks I was away in America I was using the businessman’s delight – Research In Motion’s Blackberry.

Blackberry 7290Yes, the Nokia 9500 was left in the bag… fully charged. There was no way that I would rely on a brand new device 100% while travelling. I don’t know, the things I do for you guys.

But let’s clear one thing up first. The Blackberry (in this case the 7290 model) is a pretty robust phone and email device. It never crashed on me and never required a reset over three weeks of solid use. It’s also immensely frugal on the battery, lasting 4 or 5 days of regular use before dropping to two bars (out of five) of battery coverage. The interface is basic at best, one screen of application icons, and every application seems to be based around the same underlying database code. In a way this is good as every program feels just like every other, so once you understand how email and contacts work, then you understand the whole device. Mind you,  beyond these apps it’s not really up to the job as a diary, note taker or to-do list. There is a web browser, and it works, but beyond textual html and inline images, I wouldn’t want to rely on it.

But push email is one of the big ‘look what we can do’ things in both Symbian OS 9.1, UIQ 3 and S60 v3, so I thought it important to understand what the market leading devices do before Symbian dives in. Put simply, push email takes away from you the responsibility of checking your email box for new mail. Whenever a mail arrives at a designated mailbox, a signal is sent to the device, which then connects by itself, downloads the message to your device, and then beeps at you to let you know that ‘You have mail’. You can then reply to the message and, assuming the respondent is still online (or on another push enabled device) then you’ll be able to have an almost real time exchange.

In part this is wonderfully liberating. The knowledge that there’s no way you’ll miss any of your email messages takes a load off your mind. But, and this is potentially a big but, the buzzing is both addictive and a social distraction. You get to the point where you need to reply to a message the very second it arrives, no matter what else you’re doing at the time. I found myself interrupting conversations just to bang out an "I’m busy just now" short reply, forgetting that email is not really perceived as an instant medium, in the same way SMS is. As an aside, people have often wondered why America never really woke up to SMS. I think the answer is that all the early adopters started to reply to emails in single sentences on Blackberries, so the initial surge of SMS traffic never appeared, thus it never really registered on the US networks radar.

Push email also leads to a few interesting areas – I was using the personal Blackberry server, so it was taking a copy of my email inbox, which lead to me replying to emails on my laptop, but having them still flagged as unread on my Blackberry. This isn’t as much of a problem for enterprise users, with the Blackberry hooking into their business mail systems. But end users are going to be left with either using the mailbox provided to them by their ISP (which I’ve never felt comfortable using) or using Blackberry's interface into their POP3 mailbox, which only gets checked for new mail every 10-15 minutes. At that sort of time scale you’d be better off using your Symbian smartphone's built-in Messaging scheduler, which automates the header/message retrieval process (on a Series 80 device, you'd have to go third party here).

The other issue of course is payment – as push email starts to try and make inroads to users who pay their own bills, the European model of GPRS bundles of pre-paid data is not going to work. Looking at Vodafone’s Blackberry tariffs I see £15 for 6MB of data, in addition to the basic voice plan of £22. That’s £37 a month before you’ve done anything. To fully use push email and all the new data services you need to be confident that you’re not going to get a surprise in your monthly bill, and I don’t see how this is possible without flat rate data.

The great strength with Symbian though, is that each device can be tailored to each user, and each user can decide exactly what they want their smartphone to use. Push email is available to a certain extent on the Series 80 communicators, but the majority of people aren’t aware of it and are happy with POP3 and the regular email client.

Push email is a great tool to have, but as with every tool available, you’ll only find a real benefit if your lifestyle needs it – trying to shoehorn push where it’s not needed is just going to lead to annoyed users. Personally I’m only going to feel the benefits of push email when travelling, which is about 5 or 6 weeks every year. The rest of the time it’s just intrusive – like having a small cute puppy bouncing around your office when you’re trying to work. It’s fun to take him for a walk, but sometimes you just need to get away and deal with your life without interruption.