One of the main functionality in current connected handheld devices is e-mail. Users can collect e-mails from a server, have the e-mails sent to devices, and other little tricks. We tested some services that offer a combination of pull and push techniques to give the always-on e-mail experience.
There are some solutions offering enterprise grade features, including an enterprise level price on this. Sometimes the price tag includes the requirement of having a Microsoft Exchange 2003 Server, or sometimes it includes the requirement of having a completely new server added to the mix.
Other products are more accessible to consumers and end users, using a type of software called desktop redirectors. These solutions do not require any server side installation, but will need a computer with Internet connection.
In this article we'll talk about these solutions and functionality available from an end-user perspective, not touching server configuration.
[Update: ActiveSync Always-up-to-date is explored in-depth in this article]
First we need to understand how these solutions work. The Always-on e-mail is represented in this diagram:
A new e-mail (1) is sent to a user's account (2). The e-mail server (or the solution server if it's separate software) notifies the mobile device sending a notification message (3) to the SMSC (4) which is the piece of hardware/software on the mobile network that communicates to the mobile device via SMS. The Pocket PC Phone Edition or Smartphone client then starts a synchronisation action using the available connection, either GPRS or CDMA (5).
The e-mail redirector solution is a little different. When a new e-mail is sent (1), it's stored on the e-mail server (2), and special software running on a client machine with access to the user's e-mail server (3) will pick it up. The redirector then connects to a relay server, outside the user's network (4), bypassing firewalls by using a standard port. All new e-mails received are sent to the relay server, using high grade encryption to secure these messages. The client software on the Pocket PC or Smartphone will poll the relay server on regular intervals to retrieve any new messages, using GPRS, CDMA, Wi-Fi or any other connection. Some solutions open a permanent connection to the relay server, being instantly notified of any new messages, giving the impression of always-on push e-mail.
I know, at this point you're asking “But I can configure my Pocket Inbox to poll my IMAP or POP3 server in regular intervals. Why would I need this?” The answer is security. Most ISPs provide POP3 or IMAP servers, and polling from Pocket Inbox will be enough. On the other hand, most companies have their e-mail server within a security perimeter, not visible on the Internet, and some do not have VPN access in-place. And here is where the e-mail redirector solution enters.
So, what solutions are available? I'm not going to cover all of the products available here, but some of them. We'll start with “server based always-on e-mail”. We'll just see how the functionality works, since this is not easily deployed by end users only. Then we go to the redirectors, which can be used by almost anyone.
First, Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 offers a feature called “Always up-to-date”, which uses SMS to notify the ActiveSync client on the Pocket PC or Smartphone that new items are available and require attention. I'll not go further on this solution, because I don't have an Exchange Server that I could play with (but promisse to update this as soon as possible).
Another company that offers an always-on e-mail service is Intellisync. When using the Intellisync Mobile Suite (formerly Synchrologic), integrated with a corporate e-mail server, users can be have an always-on e-mail experience. New e-mails, contacts and appointments are “pushed” to the mobile device, and there's also an option to send a SMS to standard mobile phones, notifying of new messages. There's a web client interface with control options where users can define time of the day when information can be pushed and what type of information to be included (e-mail, notes, tasks, contacts, appointments). There's also a filter where users can specify that only urgent e-mails should generate a push action, or only e-mails where the user's address is in the TO: list. You can also specify on the client side what you want synchronised when a push notification arrives. There are two types of action: Sync and SyncXpress, and these can be assigned to high-speed or low-speed connections.
My last sync status
What to synchronise?
New e-mail notification
The notification SMS, intercepted before reaching the software
Using the software was very nice. I had it on my i-mate Pocket PC Phone Edition, and there are versions for Windows Mobile Smartphone and Palm OS based devices.
Using e-mail redirectors is different. As we read before, you'll need a piece of software running on a computer permanently connected to the network, with access to the e-mail server. These are easier to implement, since they do not require server side configuration.
We tried Smartner Duality first. This software is available in different “flavours”, and the service is available from 121764 Handango (yes, you can use our discount code). Once we install the software and enter the e-mail configuration, it will connect to the relay server and send all new e-mail and appointments to the server. On your Pocket PC you'll have a Smartner Duality client installed, with two different options: Always Connected or Minimise Connection Time. If you have a Phone Edition or Smartphone, and run the client in “Always Connected” mode you'll have the same “always-on” experience as the more expensive solutions. All new e-mail arriving on your server will be routed all the way to your mobile device, without you having to press any button.
When you install Smartner Duality it will automatically create a new Inbox specifically for this service. This is very good, because you can keep your current POP3 or IMAP inboxes, plus the ActiveSync without interfering with the service.
During my tests I've seen that the most traffic you'll use if no e-mails are exchanged is around 10KB/hour. You can also pause the software, so it's not connected until you resume operations. Smartner Duality works well with clients connected to Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino servers.
Always connected or on a schedule?
If not always connected, when?
The next redirector product we tested was Symmetry Pro, from Infowave. It reuses the ActiveSync Inbox, so you'll not be able to keep this and ActiveSync on the same device. Symmetry Pro adds a Today plugin, where users can manually initiate a synchronisation, between the scheduled ones. The client will not hold a connection open, so you're restricted to the regular checks with the server, unlike Smartner.
Symmetry Pro allows you to specify how many days to sync, and because of that the software offers a very interesting “Request” feature. You can specify a search condition, and the redirector will look for old messages in all folders on your computer. The results are then forwarded to a special Inbox folder called Requested Items during the next synchronisation. This way, even if you don't have that important e-mail on your mobile device you can always access it while on the road. This is very neat!
Receiving requested items
I then tried Visto. The problem is that the software officially works with Pocket PC OS 2002 only, not Windows Mobile 2003. Although it installs ok, it does not complete the process on the Pocket PC, so I had to manually create the special Visto Inbox. It didn't work at all after that: synchronisation wouldn't recognise my logon credentials, even after creating three accounts. On the other hand Visto support was very good, with quick replies, and good instructions on how to create the Visto Inbox. Shame it didn't work with the newer OS. The software does not seem to support an always-on connection, and users will have to schedule the connections, as you can see below:
Configuring schedule connections to Visto servers
I have contacted a few other companies to check their products. I've received a reply from Seven, but did not manage to get the software in time after the first contacts, so I can't say much about it here. If I receive the software later I'll update the page.
A couple of other companies didn't even bother replying to my contacts, and if you don't see their names here is because their customer services is not of a quality good enough to be on these pages. By the way, a little rant: why is that companies put a Contact page on-line and don't bother replying e-mails?
If I have to pick one option and the SMS push is not an option, I'd go for Smartner. I really liked their interface, no need for special server configuration, the fact that they use a separate Inbox, and that you can have an “always-on” experience with the software. But have in mind that each problem will need a different approach. Some of the companies listed in article actually provide more than one solution, some offer products tied to mobile operators and others offer enterprise level solutions. Consult with then or discuss in our forums before implementing one product or other.