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Oct 102009

I have recently heard “push” email referred to as “gold-standard” mail by someone who should have known better. I disagree, although in many senses of the word, my own mail has been setup as “push” for many years now – far longer than “push” mail has been supported! Before kicking the idea of “push mail” being the cure for all ills into the grass, lets have a little review of what email is and the difference between “push” and “pull”.

Electronic mail is the computer version of those postcards you drop into letter boxes telling everyone (including the postman) what a great time you are having on holiday. It is not particularly private and is not necessarily very fast. We have gotten used to email normally arriving quickly – within minutes or even seconds, but that is not always the case. In common with the ordinary postal service (I am excluding special services such as recorded delivery), there is not even a guarantee of delivery – it is done on a best efforts basis.

Conventionally the majority of people “pulled” their email from their ISPs email server. When you wanted to read your email, you would start an email client (or commonly these days visit a webmail page and login) and it would pull your email into your email client. When connecting to your email server over a slow connection, the process of pulling in all the email could be quite slow.

To combat this problem, a few proprietary solutions appeared which ensured that the messages were pushed down to the device (as it happens a mobile phone) so that they were always ready when you wanted to read them. Essentially it was a trick – a neat trick, but a trick none the less that made the phone appear to be much faster at reading emails than other phones relying on the “pull” method.

Of course there’s a cost to all this pushing. The phone has to wake up every so often to allow the server(s) to push any available messages, which might not take much power but given the frequency with which it happens can have a big effect on how long your battery lasts.

And do we need the immediacy of push email (or other kinds of messages) ? Personally I think it is better to read (and respond) to messages when it is convenient to us to do so. Responding when the messages become available means being constantly interrupted.

At work I have seen those who have their machines configured to popup little messages whenever they get a message. I am amazed that people can get work done with these constant interruptions. Perhaps those who insist on push email are somewhat shallow, and have little need to concentrate on a task.

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