Blog Post

What’s With “Push” Email?

I’m at a complete loss.

Steve said at the Keynote that Yahoo would be providing a free push email account with every iPhone.

But I don’t understand. Why is push email better than simply automatically checking the server every five seconds? Or, for that matter, every two minutes? Does it really matter if you get email, and then have to wait a whole two minutes before you get to see it?

Please explain this to me. Why does anyone care about push email?

32 Responses to “What’s With “Push” Email?”

  1. Balooka

    Everyone is forgetting one type of user: People who’d like to get rid of their PAGERS and hone down their belt devices to one. It doesn’t take an ultra-busy chatter to need this. Just someone who needs to respond QUICKLY to occasional pager alerts. I’m a database engineer/DBA on-call 24×7, and customer like Verizon lose at least $100,000 per Hour in SLA penalties alone (not including lost opportunity costs) if their systems are running slow or down, etc (systems we maintain AND other systems we end up inheriting). Lawyers and possibly Doctors have similar needs, although a reliable pager system may still be necessary where GUARANTEED DELIVERY is needed, e.g. in cases where lives are at risk (doctors) or possibly even with my technical customers like Verizon (liability abounds everywhere in this country). So I myself am still bound to my pager, but some day hope to use PUSH email… anyone know if any service (maybe Chattermail etc) supports GUARANTEED DELIVERY?

  2. ProfTacl

    To Ben, getting a response with accurate, technical terminology gives you unambiguous information lacking in “softer” terminology. Getting the correct names for things gives you the opportunity to look up those terms and get more depth if you want it.

    To Rory and Richard, there’s no call to take a high and mighty attitude with your responses. Julian’s question was earnest, and as the discussion developed (despite your attempt to quash it) many interesting facets to the technology were revealed (God is in the details). Not only were the more obvious benefits of the interrupt model provided, such as lower network utilization and receiving messages sooner, but details that are not inherent in the interrupt model were also revealed, such as lower telephone bills (which depends upon the billing model) and longer battery life. We also learned that there are both proprietary and standard methods of achieving push mail. We learned that the impact isn’t only on the wireless network, but also on authentication servers and on log files. We see that different people use the service differently, and that some people like push mail and some don’t.

    I think it was a valuable conversation. Let’s continue to encourage curiosity and education. We were all newbies once, even if like me (it’s been over 30 years) it’s hard to remember when. Even experts are still students (or should be).

  3. I’m sure there are a whole lot of non mac users here who’d love to have push email capabilities on their current device.

    emoze offers a solution: Emoze turns mobile phones and mobile devices in to fully functional personal communication devices with a single, simple and free download for the individual user.

    It delivers real-time, secure synchronization of emails, calendars, contacts and tasks – pushing data and updates to you anytime, anywhere!

    Download Emoze Today Free!

  4. I’m a new crackberry user and I wasn’t fully aware what push email was until I started using it. And quite frankly I don’t like it. I receive a ton of mail every day and I read most of it in my mail client. I’d rather have an IMAP client on the phone so that I have only mail I haven’t read. IMAP can use IDLE to ‘push’ email to the mailbox. Other than the fact that it is always out of sync it doesn’t really matter to me.

  5. lightspeed


    I think you will find that the most effective real time communication we have is the telephone.

    If you have something to communicate that is urgent, then it is often far better to do it via voice than text. Do you really think effective people spend all day responding to urgent emails? This is one of the ultimate time wasting problems the “modern” workplace has – Itchy trigger fingers of people who mistake activity for for achievement. Real-time is really best done in real-time. Push-email is a small market idea that has morphed into mass market to display status among peers:”look how busy/important i am”, like mobile phones in the ’80’s; Not because people need it to be more effective.

    For the urgent and important using your voice or actually talking face to face is best. That, is a fact.

    As for those who require the latest and greatest in a vain attempt to look cool by increasing your visual status (trust me, you ain’t fooling anyone…), surely your time would be better spent learning a little self discipline and creating some real action as opposed to simply adding to the noise that so distracts the rest of us trying to actually do something.

  6. @lightspeed

    You realize that some people’s jobs involve communicating in real time? You’re so called “fact” is not a fact at all. Some of us do real work via email.

    Just because you sit in a cube all day producing TPS reports, doesn’t mean the rest of us are.

  7. Battery usage.

    I had a Blackberry 8700 and replaced it with a Samsung Blackjack from Cingular. Blackberry would push my POP/IMAP accounts, the Blackjack wouldn’t. I thought unboxing the Blackjack and finding a bonus battery was a boon, but it was a foreboding sign.

    I set my Blackjack to check three IMAP email accounts every 15 minutes. If I didn’t receive/make any calls, my phone died in a day and a half. If I made one 20 minute call, my standby time was less than 24 hours.

    Took the Blackjack back and traded for a Blackberry Pearl. Three days standby with about an hour of talk time per day (and in a smaller phone.)

  8. lightspeed

    hahah – reading this is pretty funny. Fact is that very very few people need to have thier email pushed to them instantly – if you are that busy passing messages about then you should likely get on with some real work and actually produce something of value instead of becoming a manic whirlwind of half finished stuff and pretending you are achieving something, then letting everyone else know by helpfully cc’ing (and therefore interrupting) them too.

    Turn off the 2 minute check and get back in control of your day. Good Grief!

  9. Steve Simitzis

    A better comparison than POP would be to compare push email with IMAP. An IMAP server that supports the IDLE command (which is just about all of them) provides the same functionality to the end user as push email. And if you wrap SSL around IMAP, you get a secure push email solution that’s perfectly suitable for a corporate user. OS X Mail currently supports this (I use it), and I’m assuming the iPhone’s mail client will as well.

    So, there really is no reason for proprietary push email services. The open standard approach does exactly the same thing, and you can use it with just about every ISP or hosted email service.

    Currently (ie. until the iPhone comes out), I’m using Chatteremail for the Treo. My desktop email (running on a Mac of course) and my mobile email are exactly the same, as both point to the same IMAP account. As soon as I receive an email, it appears instantly on both my Mac and my Treo. If I reply on my Treo, the reply is available in the Sent folder on both my Mac and my Treo, and the original message is flagged as “replied” on both. Both use the same address book, and since I use server side spam filtering, email on both devices is clean. This technology has been around for years and years, using open standards. So, if you don’t want to use Blackberry, you’re not missing anything.

  10. What I’d like to know is why isn’t Apple doing the same with their email system? This is their chance to do some interesting things with .Mac and the tight integration with the iPhone Apple could provide.

    .Mac email seem to be a passing thought in Steve Jobs’ keynote. That seemed odd to me.

  11. I’m with “e”, Brad and Ryan here. At work, I have conversations with co-workers in other parts of the country. We could use IM, but email is just easier and is on all our machines. Microsoft Exchange server basically does push email when someone sends you a message.

    Also, polling a POP server every 5 seconds would create a log entry for each check of your account. That would create quite a large log file at the end of a day. :)

  12. Another great feature of blackberry push mail is that if someone sends you say a 5mb image, the blackberry server opens it, resizes it for the bb screen and then sends it to me. That is great for obvious reasons.

  13. What Brad said. I would not have understood the appeal if I hadn’t watched how a friend used his BlackBerry socially with other BlackBerry friends. He could easily be receiving five messages from the same person over the course of five minutes — each a short reply to a short message he had in turn sent as a reply. (For example to organize an impromptu group meeting at a bar in an hour.)

    With POP set to check say every three minutes on each phone, this exchange would have taken much more than five minutes! Send, wait say one minute for the person to see it, you pick up the reply two minutes later, send your own reply, they see it minute later — it’s already been four minutes and only three of ten messages have been sent!

    Granted people can keep hitting ‘check server’ during such exchanges but that’s a pain and the several-seconds delay over push will STILL significantly impact the speed of the conversation.

  14. Another advantage — and I could be wrong about this — is that the cell company can do a bunch of server-side compression on your email to make it as small as possible before pushing it to you. Which also saves precious bytes.

  15. I have Push mail (yahoo!) and forwarded mail (gMail) on my Blackberry Pearl. The Yahoo account is soooo much nicer for real time conversations and quick exchanges. By the time GoDaddy forwards my mail to gMail (so it comes to/from my domain) and then gMail forwards to my tmobile direct address, there are usually delays — sometimes substantial.

    Also, I agree that battery use is a big factor. And the network traffic theory makes a lot of sense, too. So I would say, lots of smaller advantages.

  16. Checking mail every n minutes and getting no messages is pretty much like spam, as I see it. It does no good, wastes bandwidth, and clogs up the interweb. I can easily see the advantage of push.

  17. I just switched from a Windows Mobile device to a Blackberry. Polling my POP server every 1-5 minutes or so meant I’d get maybe half a work day out of the phone before the battery died – even with minimal voice usage.

    The Blackberry is getting well over two days of usage on a single charge. Email comes in the second it hits my server. Very slick.

  18. Rory Sinclair

    My apologies to Ben. Shall I rephrase using the terms ‘ask the network every 5 seconds’ and ‘the network tells you’?

    If you dont want to hear nerdy technical answers, dont ask nerdy technical questions.

  19. I, presumably like Rory, was surprised to find that anybody would need to ask such a question… In the vast majority of cases (possibly all — I can’t think of an exception off the top of my head) a polling model is a terrible idea if a “notification” model can be used instead.

    If, as in the original post, one were to poll the server every 5 seconds, that would be 12 requests per minute, 720 per hour or 17,280 requests (as Michael laid out above, that includes connection, authentication, LIST request and disconnection) per day from just one phone. As Gruff pointed out, multiplying this by the number of phones connected to the network would result in an astronomical number of mostly redundant POP requests per day. Not only is this going to incur cost on the users’ behalf, but it would also slow the network to a crawl…

    It’s not a question of having your email 10 seconds earlier (although if you can, why not?), it’s a sensible way to decrease network traffic and reduce cost to everyone involved…

  20. Michael Houghton

    From a system administrator’s point of view, it’s not just the pop ‘LIST’ command. It’s the fact that POP clients don’t stay connected, so there is a connection, an authentication hit on their radius (etc.) server, a list command (which lists everything, not just new messages), and a disconnect.

    Add in that most push services also do remote folder management and allow you to elect to get part of the message (e.g. the body but not the attachment) and the difference becomes obvious.

    That, and the fact that if someone mails you something, for example, while you’re on the phone to them, it appears as soon as it is available.

    And, do you really poll your POP server every five seconds? Your sysadmin must not be your biggest fan…

  21. One reason that push email is would be that people often have small “real-time” conversations over email (similar to SMS conversations). The user experience is just better when you know your email arrives almost instantly after you push the button.

    I’ve often had a phone conversation and had to email somebody a file (on regular email), and then continue the conversation based on the information in that file. I send it, the person in the other end says “yup, there it is”, and opens the file… It would be annoying if he’d have to wait for a couple of minutes for it to arrive. I know that email is not guaranteed (or supposed) to be instant, but in many cases these days, it is, and that makes it even better.

  22. @A: A POP request may be a tiny amount of data, but like pennies, they can add up quickly. Imagine a phone that polls every 10 minutes (6 times per hour), now imagine 999 other phones in the same area that do the same — in one hour there will be 6000 POP requests, the vast majority of which will return negative results. The signal-to-noise ratio of POP requests is awful and they are often considered network garbage; wired netwroks may have the bandwidth to waste, but wireless networks of any type don’t. And remember, you’re still paying for sending that effectively useless data.

    In addition, push-email is safer for firewalled systems and many large companies require that any phones they purchase/lease have push-email support .

  23. A POP request is a tiny amount of data; it surely couldn’t amount to a burden on the cell tower.
    I have a Sidekick that auto-fetches my email every few minutes; I too have wondered what the big deal about “push” is. I suppose there are times when you’d like an urgent email to pop right up, but email wasn’t really designed to do that, anyway. Lots of email servers queue messages for more than a few minutes.

  24. When the e-mail is pushed to your phone, you do not have to check regularly, thus minimizing data-traffic.

    With most telco’s in europe you have to pay for the amount of traffic you use (usually per megabyte).