Note: This article has been updated to reflect some findings in heartbeat management.
Early in 2006 mobile operators around the world will begin offering a new enhancement for use with Microsoft Windows Mobile devices (such as the O2 Xda Exec or Xda Mini S), called Messaging and Security Feature Pack (MSFP).
Independent mobile makers, such as HP, i-mate and Fujitsu-Siemens will also begin shipping their cellular enabled devices with the facility to change how you use e-mail on your mobile device.
Even the humble smartphone will join the pack from the Orange C600 to the i-mate SP5.
Of course, if e-mail on mobile is not your thing, you might be wondering what the fuss is about. Read on to learn more!
What is Push E-mail and why should I care?
Consider how you use your mobile phone for telephone calls or even text-messaging. People call you, your phone rings; ditto with a text message – someone sends you a message, your phone alerts you and there is your message. All you need to do is read it and if you wish, respond to it – you can even customise the alert tone to be that darn crazy frog.
Now consider how e-mail on a mobile device works today. With today’s current generation of ‘smart’ phones, such as the Nokia S60 series (7260, 7270, 9300, 9500) or the Sony Ericsson P910i, getting your mail is quainter. You either manually check your account (which is any number of key presses to get going) or you set your phone to periodically check if there is any mail.
It’s the digital equivalent of walking to the mailbox every hour to see if you have mail, regardless of when the mail arrives. Wouldn’t it be more time-saving (for you) if your mail were at the door, ready and waiting, rather than you needing to check for it?
Push e-mail is what the mobile industry is promoting as the answer to e-mail just arriving on your mobile device. You can deal with the e-mail when and where you want – it’s just there. Finish the e-mail, hit Send and it goes - just like text messaging, or e-mail from your work PC.
For frequent travellers or people who lead busy lives, the convenience of having your e-mail there is truly wonderful. Eliminating the step of having to manually synchronise your mobile is a nice step-change, and makes e-mail just a little easier.
Best of Breed: The RIM Blackberry
The idea of e-mail just being there is not new, and is an integral part of an offer from Canadian company Research In Motion. Blackberry is a neat little handheld device with an integrated keyboard, purpose built for mobile e-mail.
It’s been around since the late 90’s, and has continued to evolve into a polished and very useful tool. Significant effort has been put into device ergonomics and user experience – the more you use a Blackberry, the more intuitive it feels, and it takes very little time to go from novice to experienced user.
From all aspects, such as compatibility with e-mail products like Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange, end-user pricing, IT support, warranty, you name it, RIM has really focussed on keeping the customer happy and satisfied. The solution is premium priced and focused on e-mail.
It’s also been a closed proposition for a long time – you had to buy RIM mobile devices and connect to a RIM server. If your mobile choice was Nokia or an operator brand – tough.
RIM has initiated a technology licensing program so that other manufacturers could make their devices ‘RIM Compatible’, but the implementation has been limited and functionality has lagged behind what is available on full RIM products. The Windows Mobile-based O2 Xda II (2003), O2 Xda IIs (2004) and O2 Xda IIi (2005) have had Blackberry Connect available to them very late in the device lifecycles – often in the last production run from the manufacturer.
This is an excellent example of how complex software development is, and the pressure to ensure a proposition is ‘right’ before it is released to paying customers. This is common across all operators, and some have chosen to deploy earlier, buggier versions of the RIM software.
Even Nokia and Sony Ericsson offer the RIM software on some of their devices in a very limited fashion – but the future plans of both these companies is to offer support for RIM and Microsoft ActiveSync alike. Microsoft confirmed the status of their ActiveSync licensing programme at 3GSM – and they are getting lots of manufacturers signed up.
Basic Changes with AKU2
AKU is short for Adaptation Kit Update, and is somewhat similar to the concept of the Service Pack for Windows or any other Microsoft product. It’s a collection of enhancements, new applications and bug fixes to improve the software. On your PC you use Windows Update, which connects to Microsoft and downloads software updates to your machine.
In the Mobile Device world it’s a little different – Microsoft releases the software to its partners (eg. Dell, HP, HTC), who then make it work with their products and release it to their customers (such as mobile operators O2 or T-Mobile).
An AKU is only made available if the OEM chooses to make it available – so choose your equipment vendor carefully!
In addition, the OEM decides which features to enable on their devices, even if Microsoft has included software support in their core software. The hardware must be capable of supporting software enhancements – and if the software compromises performance or leads to a poor experience, the OEM is quite correct to disable it.
With the release of Windows Mobile 5.0, Microsoft have significantly improved the performance of Bluetooth, and supported profiles in AKU2 have been extended to include Sim Access Profile (SAP, supporting the shadowing of the phone’s address book directly into the carkit), and Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) meaning Stereo Headphones over Bluetooth.
I have some HP headphones I picked up in Heathrow a while ago, but have only recently been able to use them with my O2 Xda devices. On my Xda Exec, performance is good, but if the distance between headphone and device is greater than about 1.5m, the signal distorts quickly and the PDA becomes unbearably slow. On my O2 Xda Mini S, I found switching this feature on slows the device right down – only music is possible, video won’t display.
Also, be warned if you don’t use Windows Media Player. I use the excellent Core Media Player, but it doesn’t support audio over Bluetooth in the current release.
Contacts will now correctly display entries in your SIM address book alongside the local address book – an enhancement LONG overdue – indicated by the SIM icon next to an entry.
Screen redraw speed on the O2 Xda Exec (HTC Universal) has improved dramatically, but the Start menu bar can still take up to 10 seconds to display when first tapped after a restart.
Overall, I have found this release pretty good, and the e-mail function this article comments on, works well. Each vendor of course enhances or tweaks these releases, so your experience may vary slightly. The independent companies will be pretty much first of the mark with this update (such as i-mate), followed by the mobile operators.
But what about push e-mail?
For many years, Microsoft has been selling loosely integrated products that ‘kind-of’ work together but not elegantly. With the launch of the original O2 Xda in 2001, the concept of being able to get your corporate e-mail (likely to be on a Microsoft Exchange mail platform) on your device (using Microsoft Pocket PC) seemed obvious. Unfortunately, it’s taken a few more product iterations to get to the point where this expectation is closer to the RIM experience.
Support for push e-mail was part of the roadmap in Windows Mobile 5.0, which was released in May 2005, and the first mobile devices with this software appeared in the markets from September.
For the record, the feature is called Direct Push in the Windows Mobile world.
The features that support push e-mail were released to the manufacturer community a couple of months ago (from the date of this article), and it’s taken a little while longer to filter through to the operator community for their own testing and education.
This update has had enormous focus in the mobile community, and compared to previous updates will go to market very quickly. The activity at the 3GSM conference in Barcelona (13-16 February 2006) confirmed the plans of Microsoft and many partners – the ‘tipping point’ where push e-mail is a standard feature is about to be reached.
Let me summarise at a high level what is required for a fully operational Microsoft push e-mail system:
1.A mail system that is using Microsoft Exchange 2003 Service Pack 2
2.The Exchange installation must be enabled for Mobile ActiveSync Support
3.A mobile device that is running Windows Mobile 5.0 AKU2, at least version 148188.8.131.52 (this is NOT available directly from Microsoft – it comes from your device vendor, such as Dell, HP or O2).
4.A cellular data connection, configured to work with your IT environment. This could be as simple as an Internet connection on your mobile (because the Exchange box in (1) above is visible on the Internet), to a custom built corporate connection from your operator.
So easy, and yet so deceptive!
The good news is that when you get it working it works very well, and current ActiveSync installations should be easily upgradeable to support Service Pack 2.
Global Address Lookup (GAL)
A really excellent feature of Blackberry, this allows you to lookup people in the corporate e-mail directory. This is really beneficial when you’re not near your desk, or you don’t want to have everyone in the company as one of your contacts.
In this example I am writing an e-mail to Mauricio, but find he is not in the address book on my O2 Xda. No worries, enter his name and tap .
A few seconds later – over 3G – the results are in:
I can use this address, save it in my local address book and keep on working. Of course, this feature relies on the corporate address book being kept uptodate – something you can take for granted at a well run organisation!
Data Usage and Battery Impact
Carriers in the US have been most keen to embrace flat-rate pricing for their mobile data plans, but for the rest of the world bundles and per-megabyte charges are still very much the reality of 2006.
Push-mail works by keeping a connection open between your mobile device and your e-mail server; if the connection is dropped or you choose to disconnect, ActiveSync will aggressively attempt to reconnect. On most devices, this will be over GPRS, and to a lesser degree 3G. Once the connection is made, a ‘heartbeat’ between device and server lets the server know your mobile is ‘ready for e-mail’. The default heartbeat is 120 seconds, and a heartbeat is about 400 bytes. The heartbeat can be changed, and we found that a setting of 1800 seconds (30 minutes) is fine.
As a note, the Direct Push solution works only over cellular data (GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, CDMA) networks, and it won’t automatically synchronise to the Exchange server over Wi-Fi, unless you manually initiate ActiveSync after connecting to an access point.
Pay attention to some caveats though. Some mobile carriers have a differential between data used and the minimum amount charged. I believe the minimum charge amount for Vodafone NZ and UK, and the other UK carriers, is increments of 10KB. For Verizon I believe the minimum charged amount is 100KB. If you change the heartbeat settings to very infrequent trying to minimise data usage, you might get a big surprise – your 1KB ping over 1 hour on Verizon could add 100KB to your bill. Talk to your service provider and have them confirm in writing their policy.
In my testings I saw a traffic that could be about 9MB to 12MB a month for the heartbeat alone. Other sources say 5MB, but there factors we should consider, including frequency of heartbear, interference of routers or firewalls terminating the connection prematurely, mobile operator interrupting the traffic for billing purposes and other factors.
The synchronisation schedule can be modified on the device (Activesync, Tools, Schedule), so the handheld can be set to actively check for mail during working hours and the working week, for example. I chose the default ActiveSync settings – synchronise all the time, all week long.
In the default mode the data used was between 15-20 KB PER HOUR, 420KB a day, or about 12MB a month (for a 30 day month). A typical O2 Xda Exec has a standby time of around 260 hours, and talktime of about 8 hours. Left to idle, with just the heartbeat going, the battery on my O2 Xda Exec was cut to 50% after 3 days. This behaviour was observed when connected to GPRS, and only got worse when connected to a UMTS (3G) network – standby time drops to 180 hours, and talktime to 3.5 hours. Using Microsoft push-mail on Vodafone NZ 3G, standby time was cut to just 36 hours.
In summary, you can expect a 16% battery drain/day when using the device on GPRS networks, and 30% battery drain/day when using on UMTS (WCDMA) networks.
I can’t comment on the CDMA2000 experience – but those customers using the HTC Apache (also known as the Sprint XV6700) will probably have a similar experience to my UMTS findings – quite a hit on your standby time.
In terms of communications management, the Microsoft Knowledge Base 905013 explains how the heartbeat cycle works and how it can be managed, through registry changes.
Of course, this isn’t how people use their devices in reality. There is HUGE opportunity to give staff a single device, and let them make calls and receive e-mail. The small form-factor of the original HTC Typhoon (known as the i-mate SP3) finally made a smartphone useful. Using the same form factor and adding in automatic e-mail is a very appealing experience, and I’m sure there will be devices that are optimised for being data connected all day for e-mail, as well as used for talking.
Early adopters of this technology will find their talktime noticeably reduced, and once they start making and receiving calls, as well as responding to e-mail (which lights up the LCD screen, hitting the battery again), then getting a day from your phone will seem a step forward.
By comparison, Blackberry has been engineered to stay connected all day. The screen is clear and legible and doesn’t activate the backlight on every keypress – in e-mail only mode, users can get up to 12 days standby time. For those who use their Blackberry for phone calls – it does work pretty well – standby time is still a respectable 3 days.
Pricing implications for operators
Early indications from the Microsoft team in 2004 were that about 4-7MB of monthly use would be heartbeat overhead, so my experience isn’t too bad. The heartbeat is a periodic check between the mail server and the device, to check the device is still connected.
But pricing an always-on connection is a little tricky, and for push-mail to be readily taken up operators must, as always, help customers budget and plan for their mobile costs. I can’t think of too many customers who would accept open pricing for data usage for this type of enhancement – but if the offer can give the customer a predictable price then it becomes appealing. This becomes a little more complicated with Windows Mobile because it is so easy to handle attachments – and attachments are an easy way of driving data usage.
Blackberry has succeeded because of its go-to-market model. In New Zealand for example, NZ$35-50 a month buys you your Vodafone Blackberry service and device. Simple, easy, predictable. The bundled allowance is 3MB usage a month, and you would have to be dedicated to use more. So in 95% of your fleet, the bill manager can be fairly confident of what the service will cost.
On a Windows Mobile device, viewing attachments is very easy; tap to download, tap to open. There are limits of course – an Excel sheet with Visual Basic macros, complex formulas and crosslinking will not work. But, for the vast majority of users who don’t have such heavy requirements, PDF, Word, Excel and PowerPoint files just work.
Compare with Blackberry – attachment viewing can be a real exercise in frustration. RIM’s solution works, but you have to be dedicated!
Of course, attachments add to the data used on both solutions. The RIM service extracts base information from the file, translating it to a readable format, using very little data in the process to deliver to your handheld. The Microsoft way will send you the whole file – even if it happens to be 3MB in size!
By default, ActiveSync brings down the first 500 bytes of an e-mail when synchronising, but for each e-mail you can choose to bring down the whole e-mail. This is a little clunky at times, and I found it easier to set the default to 5KB per e-mail.
Add up sending and receiving e-mail, the odd attachment, and I found I used 25MB of data in December, and as of writing (20 January) I had used 20MB on e-mail alone.
Expected operator response
The flat pricing of Blackberry has been pretty important in helping sales staff and customers understand what they are signing up for. I expect operators to work on introducing a ‘bundle service’ of some time that includes a good data block – say 20MB – plus other elements that aim to flatten the cost of running Microsoft push-mail.
But, this service can be made to work with little more than just an Internet connection, and if you budget on 20-25MB per user per month ON AVERAGE, then you will be able to structure a service appropriate to you.
This covers only data costs of course; it doesn’t cover network access, voice calls, ongoing maintenance, support for device and server and the more common replacement costs for lost or stolen phones.
Loading up the IT Administrator
The Messaging and Security Feature Pack adds some new features to the administrator’s arsenal, including Force Password, Password Reset and Device Reset. The first two are fairly obvious, but the third is an option to force the device to hard-reset to factory condition, in the event the device is lost or stolen. Note this feature doesn’t extend to any Storage folder on the device or an SD Card in the expansion slot.
The bigger question is the impact on Server performance a fleet of mobile devices constantly synchronising with it will have. Servers tend to be resource hungry at the best of times, and this wave of new clients will add to the load. More to come as live installations occur and people get stuck in – but Exchange Server 2003 SP2 is already known to require more power than earlier versions to run effectively.
The observation about the load is not for the process in itself, but for the possibilities now open, and new users being added to the pool of clients connecting to servers.
In terms of effective traffic, the direct push feature will only synchronise the folders affected instead of a full ActiveSync operation. And while doing this the communication is compressed using the GZIP standard, reducing the byte size of traffic.
Bring on the datacards
One more thing to consider: if you use your mobile device as a modem connected to your laptop, push e-mail and Wireless Modem mode don’t work simultaneously. You need to manually disable the push e-mail settings, then enable Wireless Modem, and when you’re done go back again.
While for most users this won’t be an problem, for the road warrior is another item to keep in the back of your mind. You may want to consider investing in a 3G datacard from your service provider (most of them are offered free on term contracts anyway) for use with your laptop.
Is it worth it?
So, at the end of this discussion, is it worth it?
Microsoft is nothing if not tenacious, and this development clearly sets the technology on a path for greater business domination. Including it as part of the standard feature set is a strategy that has had spectacular success for the business – Media Player, Internet Explorer, the list goes on. So it’s a good thing that push-mail support will be there forever more, at no extra cost.
If you choose to enable it, and you have the right version of Exchange, then your only extra cost is in security, device management and ongoing usage, which you face with any mobility service.
For device manufacturers, and for the customer, it means a continued expansion of phones in appealing form factors and capabilities; the choice will never be greater.
But, you can’t help but feel that the polish isn’t there; the default settings on the device and the server aren’t quite right, and the customer experience is clunky. Expect a year of confusion within operator support teams and the IT department as the community at large figures out how to tweak and enhance Microsoft’s play in this area.
So is it worth it? For Microsoft, yes. For the operators, yes. For the ODM’s and other device manufacturers, most certainly yes. For the end-user, if push-mail is important then yes it is worth it - but it’s not yet a fire-breathing enhancement that will set the market alight – that will come later, once the device form factors are updated to become more powerful and more usable.
Direct synchronisation of e-mail, contacts, appointments and tasks with an enterprise server (Exchange Server), over the air
When setup, it just works, well
Improvement to graphics speed and overall stability of device
Really data and battery hungry – you’ll need a spare battery if you make phone calls as well
Device settings need tweaking for maximum user experience
ActiveSync is being licensed by Microsoft to every major device manufacturer, and Exchange Server is the most commonly used mail platform for most businesses and hosted e-mail providers. It may be more data-hungry, but ActiveSync will be everywhere and part of the standard install. RIM isn’t currently planned to be – history is replete with examples of where technological superiority has been beaten by greater availability.
Overall, 7 out of 10. RIM still leads, but Redmond has caught up!