Push vs. Pull

Farpoint Group –

Back in the late '90s, right after the initial hype around the Internet had begun to settle, along came the Next Big Thing: Push. I always scratched my head a little when the discussion turned to Push; I must confess that I had a really hard time understanding what the big deal was here. OK, I get this much: information is sent to me without my having to explicitly ask for it. But was that a paradigm shift worthy of all of the hype that swirled back then? Well, no, but I will acknowledge that Push has evolved into today's RSS feeds, and many people do in fact find these useful. And Push is also used to keep applications and servers, among other computational entities, up to date, so I'm not saying Push isn't valuable. It just seemed like the obvious thing to do, and certainly not cause for inflated marketing claims and the inflated stock prices that went along with them.

More to the point, Push also today forms the basis of most mobile e-mail strategies. If you're a mobile e-mail user, you likely have a BlackBerry, and every few minutes e-mail magically arrives on your device. I used to work this way myself, but I have returned that That Which Existed Before Push - Pull. In other words, I no longer have e-mail automatically forwarded to me, and I'm not interrupted every few seconds by a beep or a buzz. I decide when to check e-mail, and then I do this through a paradigm shift truly worthy of your attention: Web services.

What I've done (apart from moving to a Treo 650 in place of my former BlackBerry and Sidekick (that link is to the Sidekick II, though I actually had the original) is to move entirely to Yahoo Mail for my personal e-mail. Despite assorted glitches (mostly bizarre little errors that irritate, but that almost always have workarounds), I really like Yahoo Mail, especially the new desktop interface, now in beta. It looks almost exactly like Outlook or Outlook Express (including drag and drop support), but, of course, it's all implemented on the Web. This means I can get to my e-mail through any browser on any machine, and I no longer have to worry about running out of space in the minuscule storage provided by the carriers or on the device itself (also pretty minuscule, unless your device has a memory card slot of some form, and then still usually not enough regardless). Yahoo gives me 2 GB of storage (!), and I pay the $19.95 per year to get e-mail without ads. Granted, you need continuous connectivity to take advantage of this model; there is a degree of comfort that comes from caching or storing all e-mail locally. But knowing that everything is available from almost anywhere no matter if I have my notebook with me or not, and not having to worry about syncing said notebook (or my Treo) with the desktop - well that's priceless, as the credit-card ad says.

I will, however acknowledge, that the above set-up is not a perfect world on the Treo. The Treo browser doesn't handle Yahoo (or, as I learned during a recent furious bidding war, Ebay) well at all. I occasionally get strange messages about the Web page being too large, or long waits while redrawing the screen (who write this code, anyway?) Microbrowsers remain a difficult area, but I'm confident that we'll eventually have a good one that basically duplicates the desktop. In the meantime, I use one of two approaches on the Treo:

  • The mobile.yahoo.com site is optimized for WAP, a primitive text-based environment that's OK if you grit you teeth. At least much of the Yahoo environment (moving to folders, etc.) is supported. But HTML and attachments are not, and that's increasingly a problem. It's also rather clunky to navigate around. Yahoo has introduced a newer mobile-mail interface, but they charge a monthly fee for this, so I've not yet tried it.

  • The alternative is Mail2web, a free site that can read any POP3 or IMAP4 mail. This is a much better interface that the WAP browser, but doesn't support the Yahoo features (like subdirectories). Mail2web has assorted glitches and oddities; nothing is perfect, after all.

So, unfortunately, I'm only part-way there. The other issue - and this remains a challenge - is the limited availability and typically slow performance of wide-area wireless services. My Treo, from Sprint PCS, is based on 1XRTT CDMA, which should yield 60-80 Kbps - and, occasionally, it does. But more often it's slow, and often very s-l-o-w, and occasionally irritating at best. Couple this with the browser incompatibilities, and mobile nirvana is a few years off. Eventually, by the way, I will try wireless remote access to my office and pull e-mail via that mechanism - still thin-client, but no longer dependent upon a third party like Yahoo.

Regardless, I take heart in thinking back to the early days of Farpoint Group, using DOS and early versions of Windows, and still getting my job done. I am quite certain that the mobile technologies and services we need to make mobile Web services, well beyond e-mail, will someday be a pervasive reality. I also believe that Pull will become the norm in the future. In the meantime, give it a try yourself, and let me know what you think. Even with today's limitations, Pull is the way to go.

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