Mobile Email: Push vs. Pull

By Ian Bell

The ferocity of a Blackberry’s vibration mode, which at last check was supposed to be a discrete form of notification, is a seismic event that has always made me cringe. Such hoopla should certainly be set aside to herald the arrival of a truly major life event — the birth of a third child, the location of a kidney donor, or the selection of a new Dalai Llama, for instance.

The recent dispute and subsequent litigation between the folks at RIM and patent-holder NTP is founded, effectively, on a delta between the arrival of a message in your inbox, and you knowing it’s there. This is the difference between “Push”, where new messages get sent by the server to the mobile device whether I want it or not, and “Pull”, where the client (my phone) regularly polls the network to see whether there’s new mail and, if there is, downloads all or part of it and reports the status to me. Unfortunately, much of the mobile industry seems to believe that this delta of mere minutes is worth the $450 million settlement that RIM paid to NTP.

But for those of us who use email as a cornerstone of our daily interaction with the world, the difference between the two seems to be a relatively moot point. Frankly it’s impractical to notify me immediately when a new mail arrives, because that’s too often. Even if you can tell me immediately when I have new email, so what? I care about using email when I have time. And I often have time to do email on my phone when I’m waiting for planes, waiting in a lobby, or otherwise waiting. Waiting is in fact the perfect void for mobile email to fill, which I predict will make it the New Millennium’s answer to smoking cigarettes.

If not knowing I’ve got new mail immediately really makes no difference, I would submit that companies like Movamail and Phoneified, and the developers of some of the other Symbian-based email clients, are all working to produce perfectly capable email clients for mobile devices which fulfill the needs of 99% of the mobile-email-using public. These simple IMAP-centric applications do so without the hoopla and cost of “Push” email, to be sure, but also without the centimillions heaped upon Push-based solutions from Good Technology, RIM, and a few others. It works because based on the way we use email, or at least the way we all should be using email, the “Push” advantage which the industry touts as immediacy is actually bothersome, and “Pull” is just plain good enough.

For those of us who really do need to be able to be in touch with people using text communications with near immediacy, we already have a technology that does this – it’s called SMS. My Nokia spends a lot more time being thumbed over with SMS messages than it does sending email compositions. I know that, with the extra effort required to send a text message from one’s mobile phone, thumb keyboard or not, the party in question must really want to reach me quickly.

Ian Bell is a telecom geek from Vancouver, and he is constantly checking his phone waiting for some mystical SMS message that never arrives. He is a good friend of ours as well.

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