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Monday, October 16, 2006

The Concept of Push Mail

I think it would be fair to credit the popularization of the term 'Push Mail' to Research in Motion’s (RIM) ubiquitous Blackberry device. For those living in a cave in Afghanistan for the last few years, push mail refers to the automatic receipt of Emails – implicitly assumed to be a handheld device, as soon as they arrive at the destination Email server. This is in contrast to the traditional way of receiving mails either via manually triggering it at the Email client or by performing an automated poll after every stipulated number of minutes.

A proper appreciation of the value of push mail cannot be achieved without first acknowledging that the concept by itself introduces a paradigm shift - and a very niche one at that. Logically, the technology for on-the-road Email access has already existed for years prior to the introduction of the first Blackberry device. Even then, Internet connectivity can be achieved in the form of a PDA or laptop paired to the right model of mobile phone.

Think about it: if someone tried to explain the concept of electronic mail (Email) to you just twenty years ago – would you have considered the entire idea as outright bizarre? Yet Email is now so prevalent that it has changed the way we work. Phone calls are often followed by Email to formalize the points discussed. For an increasing number of jobs advertised, the only point-of-contact for sending in your resume is now often an Email address. Indeed, a new form of marketing called Email marketing (Some just call it spamming) – which did not exist previously, has materialized to specially target the increasing number of those who have an Email address.

Of course, as in everything else in life, there are also detractors who disagree on the actual usefulness of having your Email appear auto-magically on your handheld device at all hours of the day. Jass van Ekris certainly has some things to say about that in his article titled “The (non)sense of push communication” at the Modern Nomads.

Regardless of our position towards push mail, the fact is irrefutable that it has matured from its quiescent start into a solid market segment that simply cannot be disregarded. Push mail is here to stay. Certainly, this is a fact is certainly not missed by the technopreneurs among us. This can be evidenced by the fact that there are no shortages of players on the market. Other than the incumbent market-leader RIM, both Microsoft and Nokia are making strident inroads into the market – if only more towards upping the quality of their respective technical implementations than any evolutionary improvements in features.

In the case of the latter, Nokia seemed to have adopted a dual strategy of negotiating cross licensing deals for interoperability with as big a swathe of the existing market players as possible. Additionally, it has also acquired Intellisync – probably so as to integrate it as an indigenous solution for its mobile phone and leapfrog into RIM’s league.

Additionally, we also have the more established companies with proven products as well as existing relationships with Telcos such as Good Technology, Seven and Visto, not to forget a myriad of smaller players such as CAMEO InfoTech, Consilient, just to name a few.

Personally, the idea of having Emails being pushed to me within seconds on it arriving on the server is attractive to me. To the skeptic however, do try to give using the push mail a shot first. You might surprise yourself yet. We will not dwell any further into this however, as an extensive discussion of the (perceived or otherwise) merits or demerits of push mail is certainly not the purpose of this guide here.

One aspect normally missed out by the non-user doing an evaluation is that receiving of Emails is normally not all there is to it. Every one of the established push mail implementations on the market today not only cover Emails, but generally have support for push-type synchronization of calendars, contacts, to-do lists and notes features as well. Direct Push, for instance, supports all of the above (other than notes) as well as well as being able to access Exchange’s global address list (GAL) over-the-air.

Additionally, there is also a lot of difference in terms of the depth for the same features supported by the different push mail products. As a simple illustration, as of the time of writing, RIM’s flagship Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) 4.x only allows for the receipt of new incoming mails. There is an option during initial activation to ‘backfill’ to a certain number of earlier Emails. However this acts on the entire mailbox as a whole – you cannot specify the folders you might specifically want to include. Direct Push, on the other hand, allows the user to select any additional folders that they might care to keep synchronized.

Perhaps a detailed examination of these differences can be the subject of another write-up. Yet with the fluidity and constant improvements in the current playing field, it might be a pointless task. Whatever it might be; where push mail is concerned - you might hate it or you might love it, but push mail is certainly here to stay.