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.


justin bryan

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One thing you failed to discuss is what differences if any push and pull have on device performance, namely battery life (such as pull devices checking the server for new messages every 15 minutes vs push devices having the server send a message only when one is recieved). I don’t need to know instantly when I receive a message, but I use Outlook at work so I’m used to it.

Money Making Surveys

I’ve been going back and forth whether to get a Blackberry or not. Do I want to be that connected? I haven’t decided yet.

I’ve notice some friends and colleagues who do have BlackBerry’s, can’t stop themselves from checking their emails.


Some great points above in the ever-lasting Pull vs. Push debate. At the risk of plugging in a line about our service MeOnGo, here is my 2 cents worth…

More than 2 billion mobiles world-wide, of which smart-phones account for less than 4%. 1.5 billion email accounts world-wide. And how may mobile email users do we have so far? 10M at best!!

How come no one is questioning this? As critical as email is in our life these days, why is it that only half-a-percent of email users find mobile email appealing?

My take is that mobile email, as is on offer currently… is targeted at high-end users, having high-end devices, requiring high-end email infrastructures – not to mention the ongoing high-cost of using it (data plans, license fees etc.) Many services which claim to be “mobile email for masses” require downloading and installing a client on the phone – requiring mostly a smart-phone and an entry level data-plan.

The above pretty much rules out users in emerging economies… Where internet connectivity and computers are not pervasive. Where people have mobile phones but still continue to use cyber cafe’s to access email. Where “value-for-money” is paramount. Where people have browsing capabilities on the phone but data-plans are still expensive. These, accordingly to me, are people who will find great use for mobile email… provided its adoption and usage costs are attractive.

It is with this scenario in mind that our service MeOnGo was developed and launched. A comprehensive PULL mobile email service that works purely in the mobile’s browser. Nothing to download, nothing to install and no complicated setups – simply go to the, enter your email address, password and get going.

The service is designed ground-up to work with any mobile… whether it is an old GPRS phone with only WML support or a cutting-edge smart-phone. The service, though free, provides comprehensive email functionality… there is support for multiple mailboxes, viewing of attachments, SMS alerts for new emails and much more.

In the ongoing debate of Pull vs. Push… Pull would surely fit the bill of Clayton Christensen’s definition of “Disruptive Technology”…

A new, possibly lower performance, but less expensive product that addresses an existing market. The disruptive technology starts by gaining a foothold in the low-end, and less demanding, part of the market, then moves up-market through performance improvements, and finally displaces an incumbent’s product.

Robert Spivack

An interesting sidenote – the last service pack for Microsoft Exchange Server and Windows Mobile/Smartphones included “push” email support.

Actually, the implementation is more of a “smart pull” then an actual push, but Microsoft markets it as “push” email.

The real benefit is that it is a free upgrade. If your are running Exchange server (either in-house or hosted) and have a Windows Mobile SmartPhone, you get “push” email without the added cost of a Blackberry Enterprise Server or GoodMail server and no extra monthly service fees ($30/month or more!) other than a basic data plan from your mobile carrier.

Since some decent phones like the Treo700w and 700wx, the Motorola Q, Sprint/Verizon 6700, and others run Windows mobile, there’s a fair amount or choice of phone/carrier to avoid the “Blackberry tax” and the “IMAP/POP kluge” alternatives to true push/pull email.

Blackberry is in a precarious position – much like Apple versus PC’s in the early ’80s they may be the “best” but their high cost/proprietary protocols has made them enemy #1 and with both Microsoft and general IMAP solutions, they better wise up or they’ll end up circling the wagons and defending their eroding base to become a footmark in the history of mobile email/data services.

Charlie Brook

I’d agree that the novelty of instantly being told about every email that arrives in your mailbox soon wears off. After having my blackberry stollen, I switched to a Nokia E61 using the built in IMAP Idle support. This is actually a rather flawed implementation as it gets confussed when the internet connection drops for a period, and there after doesn’t push any new mail. However this has turned out to be something of a blessing, since know I only connect the phone in push mode when I’m expecting an important message.

Another super simple approach that I like is using a server side ruleset and an sms alert to notify me when important clients email me.

Will Sheward

You’re right to conclude that much of the hoopla surrounding push is just marketing bumpf but for some users knowing, as soon as possible, that ‘relevant’ emails have arrived is an important requirement.

The key is to realise that you don’t need a BlackBerry (or any other proprietary technology based handset) to fulfill that requirement. Just an email provider and handset email client that support some key Open Standards like IMAP-IDLE (for the ‘push’) and SIEVE filtering (for the ‘notify me of email from person X but not from person Y’ situations).

But just as important as getting the email delivered when you want it/need it is being able to actually do something constructive with it. Effective handling of email using a device with limited bandwidth and limited storage is something that’s often overlooked.

Thankfully it hasn’t been overlooked by the IETF who have recently published standards extensions to IMAP and SMTP address both ‘push’ and handling issues (like bandwidth efficiency, forwarding an email without downloading it to the handset, and bandwidth efficient re-connections/re-sync in the event of a dropped signal).

The extensions are known by the acronym LEMONADE, and I know for a fact that major server and client software companies are working to integrate these standards into their products. I should declare an interest here, I work for an email server company, Isode – we released our LEMONADE compliant servers (the first) 2 weeks ago and are active in the IETF group along with Nokia, Sun, Nortel, Oracle and many others.

I know this sounds like a bit of an advert but if you want to know more about LEMONADE, go to Isode’s site is, unsurprisingly, at

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