Keep on pushing
You might expect me to have learned by now that whenever I announce in this column “Next month, I’ll be blah blah blahing…” then almost without fail something will crop up to scupper my plans. A case in point is that last issue I promised as an experiment to abandon my trusty BlackBerry for a few months and try some of its more popular competitors: I was planning to run Good Mobile Messaging during December, but that’s as far as that plan got. The problems that stopped me had nothing at all to do with Good, which has in fact been exceedingly helpful throughout. No, the problems were all the fault of a very temperamental Dell server and its apparently even more unreliable replacement. Since this isn’t the network column, I won’t bore you with the gory details, but hopefully things will soon be fixed, allowing Good Mobile Messaging to become my mobile email platform in time for next month’s column (there I go again…).
As a result of these server problems, instead of Good Mobile I switched to Microsoft’s push mail system during December. This was a deliberate choice because, unlike most other push email solutions, Microsoft’s doesn’t require an extra server. Microsoft’s push system isn’t really a shrinkwrapped product at all: the underlying technology is referred to as “Direct Push”, but rather than being something that arrives in a box or on a CD it’s simply a method for connecting two existing Microsoft products – Exchange Server and Pocket Outlook. There’s no extra software to buy or install, and hence no additional servers required. That makes it sound like a bit of a no-brainer, since most alternative push email systems cost a fair bit and, as I just mentioned, they’ll all require their own dedicated server. Surely a zero-cost, zero-install solution is the way to go?
For some companies, it almost certainly will be, but it isn’t quite so simple as the Microsoft marketing machine would have you believe. For a start, your company needs to have deployed the correct version of Microsoft Exchange for it to work, namely Exchange Server 2003. Actually, you have to go one step further, because you’ll also need to have installed Service Pack 2 to get the Direct Push email system working. Prior to SP2, an alternative push email system was available, but frankly it was a bit of a hack (actually a huge hack), which relied on the mail server sending an SMS message to the mobile handset to say a new mail was available, whereupon the mobile would connect to retrieve it. It thus relied on the mobile phone networks’ email-to-SMS gateways.
There are several problems with this approach, the chief being that not all networks offer such a gateway and, even when they do, they’re notoriously unreliable. Another potential pitfall for SMS-based push solutions is that some networks charge 10p for each SMS sent via their gateways, which might sound reasonable for people only receiving a few messages per day, but what if a rogue script runs riot and sends you thousands of emails? Or, what if you annoy someone in a newsgroup and they mail-bomb you with hundreds of thousands? It isn’t just your mail server that would explode, but also your mobile phone bill.
Microsoft’s previous attempt at push email is therefore best avoided, but the latest incarnation is actually quite good. It doesn’t rely on SMS at all, the mobile and the server instead talking to each other via a standard HTTPS (port 443) connection. They can even talk using normal port 80 HTTP, although that isn’t something I’d encourage for obvious reasons of security, both encryption and authentication.