This morning I have been watching the battery life of my Nokia N95 drain rapidly away. It is 2pm and I have less than 40% remaining. When I unplugged the device at 7am, it was fully charged.
It is not the handful of calls I’ve made or my few minutes of web browsing which have caused this, but my push email client, which is working away in the background updating my mailbox throughout the day.
The effect on battery life is extraordinary and it has provided a stark reminder of just how difficult it is to deliver a great mobile email experience.
Over the last 10 years I have tried numerous solutions: from the early SMS-to-email gateways (anyone remember this on the Nokia 2110?) to the mobile Gmail application. I must have used 30 different products in this time and only 2 have managed to deliver what I’d term a ‘good experience’: the BlackBerry and the Danger-powered T-Mobile Sidekick.
The product currently killing my Nokia battery is Mobile Mail, a white-labelled solution developed by Seven and offered by network operator Three UK as part of its X-Series package.
Battery life aside, there is a lot to like about this system. The setup process was very simple – I just entered my email address and password and it figured out all the settings without any intervention from me. It is included free within my X-Series tariff and therefore offers tremendous value compared to the cost of a subscription product like the Blackberry. Mobile Mail also works with remarkable speed, with emails sometimes appearing on my mobile before they arrive in my desktop inbox.
However, all these fine characteristics make little difference to my long-term chances of using the product. The simple interface, the efficiency of the client/server processing – even offering it to me free – mean nothing while the battery life issue continues to deliver a broken experience.
It is now 3:08pm and I have had to plug my N95 in to recharge after multiple ‘Battery low’ warnings. Today I am in my office, with access to a charger. Tomorrow I may be on the road and anything which kills my mobile halfway through the working day is simply unacceptable.
An otherwise good mobile user experience, fatally compromised by inefficient use of power.
I’ve always been tempted to think that most mobile email architectures are basically the same, but having spent some time searching for the best experience, it has become clear there are huge variations in efficiency.
For instance, the few hours usage provided by my N95, Three and Seven combination contrasts with the 3 days I get from my T-Mobile Sidekick.
Battery life is frequently cited by Blackberry users as one of their key reasons for their continuing loyalty to the brand.
It is a great example of the difference between a technology-driven approach and a user-driven approach. Neither the Sidekick nor the Blackberry use the latest open operating systems and they favour 2.5G GPRS radios over the latest 3.5G HSDPA connections. If one were to glance at their specifications, the N95 would out perform the Sidekick and the Blackberry in almost every respect. However, it delivers far-and-away the worst mobile email experience.
The Sidekick and the Blackberry focus on the aspects which are most important to the user: great battery life, reliability and ease of use. Their architecture is built from the ground-up for a usage scenario in which a device needs to constantly confer with the server to see if there is email waiting and, if so, download it in the background. To do this in a power efficient manner is actually a considerable engineering challenge and one that few companies have managed to crack.
It’s no wonder mobile email is such a litigious area. Research In Motion, manufacturers of the Blackberry, famously settled a suit with patent-holder NTP for USD 650m last year. Visto has just reached an agreement with Microsoft after it alleged the software giant infringed some of its patents. Clearly those who think they’ve cracked the email experience want to protect their technology.
I think this is going to become a very interesting area. The enterprise usage scenarios are obvious, but there is also growing demand from consumers for mobile email access (witness RIM’s recent deal with Vodafone to bring Blackberry to the mass market and Visto’s consumer deal with T-Mobile).
However, it is worth noting that this is not limited to email. The same kind of asynchronous data transfer which makes for a great mobile email experience is also a crucial component of many new mobile data applications: caching RSS feeds, photo sharing, downloading music and video content. All of these services benefit from having an intermediary layer able to sort out problems like dropped connections, working in off-line mode and the battery unexpectedly running out of power.
The middleware expertise gained by mobile email providers is going to be enormously valuable to the industry when developing the intelligent layer between the handset and the world of web applications.
It’s no wonder Microsoft is rumoured to have paid USD 500m for Danger, the company behind the T-Mobile Sidekick. I think time will prove this to be a very smart acquisition.
Power requirements and the inherent unreliability of wireless network connections will mean that many core mobile applications will need an intelligent middleware layer for some years to come to ensure consistency of experience. Ownership of this layer is likely to become an important strategic battleground. It is not difficult to see Nokia’s Ovi taking on this role or the likes of Google and Yahoo evolving their mobile platforms to offer this kind of functionality. Microsoft is now well placed after its Danger acquisition and Research In Motion have some very valuable assets in their Blackberry server platform.
Network operators should take note: those that are thinking intelligently about their long-term future in the mobile value chain would do well to look closely at how they can implement a generic middleware layer within their network and open it out to new third party applications.