Solutions At Hand

Handhelds, smartphones, mobile technology and the digital lifestyle.

E-mail Round-up

Posted by Michael Brown on January 26, 2007

E-mail is a mainstay in today’s mobile devices, and the Treo is no exception. The Treo product line ships with the VersaMail Client (now just called Email on the newest Treo’s like the 680 and 700p), but how good is it, and how does it stack up to the competition? That’s what I’ll be covering in the next three or so posts in this series, but from the point of view of an individual or small business. There are other products out there that replicate the Blackberry experience, like Goodlink and Palm’s Blackberry Connect, but those products are usually deployed by large organizations, so individual users don’t have a choice in the matter.

I’ll be doing these reviews in a series of comparisons, because everyone’s needs for email are different. These reviews aren’t about finding the “best” email client; there is no such thing. By comparing the various email clients to each other in real world applications, it can help you find the best application for your needs and situation. In order to test these applications, I’ll be using my own IMAP mail server, as well as a Yahoo! POP account I use for a multitude of mailing lists, both individual messages and digest modes. I’ll be comparing the third-party e-mail clients against VersaMail, which is what installed standard on the Treo.

For some background information, E-mail is client-server relationship. E-mail gets sent from a client on your PC or Treo to your provider’s server, then passed through a few other servers on it’s way to it’s destination, the recipient’s server. The recipient would then use a client software package to get that e-mail. There’s two major ways of getting e-mail. The first is called POP3 or Post Office Protocol version 3. POP3 is generally what most providers supply with Internet Service accounts, and it’s the protocol used to access webmail based accounts like Yahoo or Gmail. It works much like a physical “snail mail” mailbox: mail sits there until you retrieve it, where it is then moved into your inbox on the e-mail client. It is possible to configure your email client to leave the original in your mailbox on the server, and merely fetch a copy into your mail program’s inbox, but that is not typically the default. The Yahoo account I’m testing with will be keeping the original, and the various clients I’m using are configured to get a copy. POP3 accounts are generally not intended for the long term storage of e-mail (although Gmail is an exception).

IMAP is a different beast. It’s a system that is designed to store e-mail permanently on the server, and therefore it has tools to make it beneficial to do that. IMAP supports folders, and folders within folders, so you can make a filing system that works for you. Your email program works with a local copy of your email “filing system”, and any changes you make are propagated back to the server.

Many IMAP server installations have server-side tools to filter e-mail based on a multitude of criteria, and this filtering is done as the mail arrives at the server. This can be a huge time and money saver; let’s say you frequently receive mail of a routine or non-urgent nature. That type of mail can be filtered into a different folder than your Inbox (like “Read later”) that you read when your at your desktop PC. That makes getting your inbox mail faster, as you won’t have to wade through all your mail, and you won’t pay for retrieving email you don’t need to read immediately (for those that pay per kB transferred).

Typically, email is “pulled” from the server to the client, as the client “polls” the server. Think of it along these lines: The client says “Hey, got any mail for me?” every 15 minutes. The server will respond either “nope”, or “yup”, in which case the client says “Ok, gimme”. Push e-mail like the Blackberry basically shoves email out to the mobile device the moment it arrives at the server, eliminating the delay of polling for mail every ‘x’ minutes (no more “is it here yet?”). It’s like having the mailman running your mail to you every time a letter shows up at the post office. With the Blackberry or Goodlink, this involves having a dedicated server which talks to both the mobile device and the mail server, and acts as a go-between. This integration typically requires a significant investment in both money and IT infrastructure, which is usually reserved for larger organizations.

For individuals looking for push email on a smaller scale, some e-mail clients are supporting an IMAP server feature called “IDLE”. It’s like keeping a phone call (connection) open so you can talk to someone right away, when you need to. Most of the time the connection is idle (meaning you’re not paying for data transfer because your not actually sending or receiving mail), but your email willl come through right away when it arrives because the connection to the server is still open. The IDLE feature is particularly handy if your existing IMAP server supports it: you just buy an e-mail client that supports IDLE, and you have instant push email on your existing infrastructure, with minimal costs and fuss.

So, here are the tasks I’ll be performing with each of the clients:

  • Reading and replying to email sent to me personally that is in my Inbox (IMAP).
  • Reading and replying to mail sent to me via mailing lists (Yahoo POP3)
  • Reading and deleting auto-generated logcheck emails that reside in an IMAP ‘system’ folder
  • Read and delete or save individual mailinglist e-mails that reside in a ‘lists’ folder on the IMAP server

I find that mailing lists are a great way to test email clients. The sheer volume of people from around the world, using a multitude of email programs (with varying levels of compliance to the specifications of technically correct emails) ensures that the program I’m testing has a wide range of samples to go through. The emails will be a range of plain text, text digest, HTML, and multi-part mixed. Text digests nice torture tests for portable email clients. The mailing list software is supposed to reduce HTML or rich text messages to plain text, but sometimes things happen where a mashup of plain text and HTML codes get sent through, and some e-mail clients just choke up trying to handle the mashup.

So, stay tuned for the next post in this series, where I’ll be talking about my baseline for comparison, VersaMail, and how it stacks up to ChatterEmail.

2007-03-15 Update: You can find part 1 in the series, VersaMail vs ChatterEmail, here.
2007-08-24 Update: You can find part 2 in the series, VersaMail vs SnapperEmail, here.

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2 Responses to “E-mail Round-up”

  1. Marc Blank said

    Hi, Michael.

    Your readers might want to know that AOL provides free, push-capable IMAP mail (they’ll even give you your own domain for free); many of my customers use it.

    Marc

  2. Marc,

    Thanks for the tip. Folks, this is the Author of ChatterEmail.

    I’ve updated the post to include a link to part 1 of the series. It took longer to do than I would’ve liked, but that’s the joys of having young kids start daycare and thus start catching every bug imaginable! Other things tend to take a back seat to that…

    Marc, hope you enjoy your new job at Palm. Best of Luck to you!

    /Michael

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