Mobile Email: What's in it for me?

January 15, 2003
©2003 Rich Stillman, Waystation Partners

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Three months ago, I became a trailing-edge member of the cell phone generation when I bought a Danger Sidekick from T-Mobile. At the time, I wrote two articles, one the day after I picked up the phone and another about ten days later. It's been about three months since I picked up the phone, and its effect on my work style is worth comment.

T-Mobile markets the Sidekick as a mobile phone, a job it does pretty well. But I don't think they see it primarily as a voice device, or they would have offered a service plan with more than 200 anytime minutes per month. On the other hand, the unlimited data access offered in the same service plan shows T-Mobile's true intentions: the Sidekick is meant to be used for mobile text. In that application, it excels - and shows just what the "anytime, anyplace" model of data delivery can mean to workers who rely on communications to do their jobs.

Link for the impatient

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Mobility and email: Changing the equation

The easiest way to understand the potential value of usable email on a mobile device is to examine the typical use of email and voice in the office. If I'm sitting at my desk, it's about as easy to send email as it is to pick up the phone. These two forms of communication are also pretty much equally effective - I'm about as likely to reach someone and get a response by picking up the phone as by sending electronic mail. Because of this, I'll choose the written or spoken word based on which one most effectively carries my message: voice for quick-and-dirty discussions, email for more complicated issues or extended discourse. In the office, it is the content of the message, and not the technology, that makes the decision for me.

Consider my situation, though, if I walk away from my desk. It doesn't matter if I'm going on a business trip, to lunch, or just down the hall to get coffee: I'm away from the communication devices I can rely on in my office. If I need to communicate, what are my choices now?

If I'm a typical mobile worker, I can fall back on my cell phone for voice. Cellular voice may be expensive and unreliable, but it works well enough for most people to enable them to manage their voice communications when out of the office.

But most people don't carry an equivalent tool for mobile text. The available laptop-based solutions for managing email on the road are pretty awful, posing problems of portability, cost, connectivity, coverage, battery life and durability of equipment, just for a start. But the biggest loss when text applications go on the road is message push, or the ability to passively receive notification of an incoming contact from another person at the time it's sent. When your desk phone or cell phone rings, that's push - you get notified of the incoming communication without having to lift a finger. Same thing when the flag goes up on your electronic mailbox.

Most road warriors take a laptop on the road to manage email, but that solution is similar to using a telephone with the bell silenced. Calls still come in, but the recipient is not made aware when that happens. Those calls can be retrieved through voice messaging and replied to in a kind of "batch" mode. However, the spontaneity and quick response of push notification is lost. As a result, interchange of ideas happens very slowly, if at all.

On the road, cellular voice offers instant connection and push notification. However, the mobile text user receives email infrequently and only because he or she takes action to check for it. This important difference in usability changes the voice vs. email equation. Road warriors choose their communications medium based largely on the limitations of the technology, and not on which is more appropriate to the content of the message. Worse, there is a ripple effect that causes desk-bound workers to choose voice over text if their intended recipient might be on the road or otherwise unable to check their email. The result is that many conversations are held by phone that would be far more appropriate via email.

True mobile mail works like a cell phone

Bringing wireless email into parity with wireless voice requires two things - ease of use (more on this later) and push delivery. Mobile push email, like its deskbound sibling, absolutely requires an always-on connection to the Internet. It also requires exceptional portability and battery life, so the always-on device isn't left behind in a briefcase or on a desk. In short, it requires an email device that works like a cellular phone.

Device issues: Usability, usability, usability... and coverage

The convergence of wireless voice and data that started with 2.5G cellular networks allows text and voice to share the same wireless transmitter, network and device. Virtually every cell phone manufacturer now offers devices that fill this need, in form factors ranging from traditional cell phones to Palm and PocketPC based devices, with some unusual and innovative designs thrown in. The Sidekick fits into this third category.

This article is not meant as a review of the Sidekick. However, a few paragraphs that describe the device are in order, because the successful implementation of wireless email depends partly on the design of the hardware on which it is meant to run.

Designing a miniature text device was a usability challenge even before the days of the first pocket computers. On a device small enough to be carried on a belt, text entry and display both pose problems. Displays can be miniaturized through fairly conventional methods, either by reducing the size of text to fit on a small screen or by keeping text size large and forcing the reader to scroll.

Designing effective small-form text input is a more difficult task. Buyers can currently choose from at least three methods of text entry on cell phones: telephone keypad entry offered on most conventional cell phones, stylus-based entry as offered on various Palm and PocketPC-based phones, and miniaturized versions of standard keyboards like those on the RIM BlackBerry, Handspring Treo, and Danger Sidekick. (Alternative text input methods that require users to learn a new method of typing, such as the FrogPad, are being developed and may - or may not - be accepted in the mainstream.) Of the three, keypad entry is the least usable and works only for very short messages. Stylus entry and miniature keyboards both have their adherents, but usability tests show that handwriting is a slower form of text entry than a well-designed small keyboard. The shift by companies like Handspring from pen-based input to mini-keyboards indicates that keyboard entry may be winning the day.

The Sidekick's approach combines a high-density screen, which displays approximately 11 lines of 50 characters, with a very well-designed miniature keyboard. It folds into a package about the size of a bar of soap and can be used as a conventional handheld phone when closed. When swiveled open it offers the most PC-like form factor of any currently available cell phone. The phone's software user interface is based on icons and pull-down menus, so any Windows or Mac user will feel at home. The email UI is styled after Outlook, and email and other text is easy to read on the Sidekick's screen. Text entry is not fast by PC standards, but typing on this keyboard is faster than on any other keyboard designed for two thumbs - and leagues beyond the speed that can be achieved on a stylus-based unit.

Now about that coverage issue. A mobile email device, like a cell phone, is not very useful outside of the device's signal area. Here the T-Mobile network offers a mixed bag, wiith decent coverage near big cities, major highways and on the East and West coasts. Outside of their coverage area, T-Mobile users can take advantage of a signal sharing arrangement with Cingular, which allowed me to use my Sidekick in North Carolina's Outer Banks. Beyond those coverage areas, however, the Sidekick becomes fairly useless since it lacks the ability to use the analog cellular network that covers most of the country. Combined with the 200-minute service plan, the coverage issue will force heavy users of cellular voice to carry a second phone to use for voice calls.

The effect of mobility on email

So how did mobility affect my email usage? It removed the barriers to effective mobile use of email by offering portability, ease of use for reading and writing text, sufficient battery life and - most important - push notification of incoming messages. In short, the Sidekick removes the technological hurdle that makes mobile text less convenient than mobile voice. It has allowed me to choose the right medium for each message, just like I do at my desk, and allowed my working style on the road to be much more like my wired, network-bound existence.

Most important, mobile email allows me to remain in touch with the majority of my desk-based colleagues who communicate by email. I can keep up with mailing lists, reply to questions sent to me or to a group, and get my questions answered. Mobile email is not as easy to use as the desktop variety, but cellular phones don't work as well as the wired variety, either. What's important is that always on connections and good portable devices like the Sidekick have restored parity between voice and text for road warriors.

On the road, having mobile access to my email has dramatically decreased my laptop use. I rarely boot my laptop just to manage email; when I do, I find that I've already dealt with all the important items. In practical terms, I can sometimes leave my laptop at home when I travel, a tremendous convenience in this age of increasing airport security. When I'm at a client site, I can manage my personal email independent of the client's network, avoiding other potential security issues.

Even at home and in the office, I find myself spending less time sitting at the computer and checking email. After all, if an important message comes in, it finds me - I no longer have to go looking for it. I've tried homebuilt mobile email solutions before, but the Sidekick and T-Mobile service finally allow me to think of email as a service the delivers information to me, not to my computer, . And that's the biggest conceptual change of all.

Mobile email, and the Sidekick implementation in particular, is far from perfect. User-controllable spam filters are missing, and will be an absolute necessity when T-Mobile starts charging by the kilobyte for data delivery. The device lacks a copy-and-paste capability, which would make entry and editing of messages much simpler. Address book entries are stored in a proprietary format, so they cannot be emailed or beamed in the style of vCard-compliant business cards on Palm, PocketPC or Psion devices. And it goes without saying that coverage could be far better than it is. But taking into account the compromises that must be made in order to fit a text-based service that was designed for a 25 pound desktop PC onto a belt-size device with a couple of days of battery life, the people at Danger who designed the Sidekick should get a great deal of credit for creating a practical, usable device on their first try - particularly considering the amount of time their competitors at Palm, Handspring, Microsoft and the cellular phone manufacturers have been trying to accomplish the same goal.


On the desktop, email has supplanted voice for many purposes because it offers significant advantages - the ability to compose and consider a thought before sending it, the creation of a searchable permanent record of personal correspondence, and the capability to carry on a conversation when the parties involved are not all available at the same time. But when important messages are delayed because the recipient is away from his or her computer and unaware that those messages have even been delivered, the value of email is diminished for everyone. This problem of reliable delivery has kept email from reaching its full potential as a communications tool.

Mobile email promises to remedy this problem by allowing email's reach to extend past the desktop all the way to the intended recipient, regardless of location. The Sidekick, Treo and other email-oriented personal devices offer a glimpse into how much more effective email can become because of this seemingly simple addition. They also show how the use of email can change when it stops being perceived as computer-centric and becomes a truly personal service. People who depend on email can take advantage of this enhancement now. I highly recommend it.

©2003 Rich Stillman. All rights reserved.