For several years, pundits have been declaring that the death of email is imminent. First, we heard that Generation Y prefers text messaging to email. Most recently, speculation has it that Facebook’s “social inbox” will make email obsolete. Nonetheless, many of us — particularly business users — still depend heavily on email. For that segment of the population, an important criterion in selecting a smartphone or tablet is how well it handles your email needs. That becomes even more of an issue if you’re like me; I receive a very large volume of mail (hundreds of messages per day), I use multiple email accounts for different purposes, and I rely on filtering and folders to keep my email organized.
Let’s look at the pros and the cons of using various popular mobile platforms when it comes to viewing, responding to, and managing email.
Research in Motion’s BlackBerry was born to email. It started out as a pager that integrated with enterprise mail systems, before it morphed into a phone. When it was introduced in the late 1990s, cell phones were far from ubiquitous, and it was targeted at corporate users only. Today’s BlackBerry devices are full-fledged smartphones that run a proprietary operating system and have their own set of apps.
BlackBerries use the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) to integrate with corporate mail servers running Microsoft Exchange, Novell GroupWise, and the like. BES relays messages sent from the corporate mail server to the wireless carrier’s network to be delivered to the BlackBerry device. BlackBerries can also support POP mail accounts. BES is not required to get email through a BlackBerry; another option is BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS), but the SIM needs to provisioned for BIS. Exchange users can also use Outlook Web Access (OWA) on the web browser.
BlackBerry was first to provide “push” email, whereby messages are delivered to the device as soon as they come into the email server, rather than the device having to be periodically synchronized. Although other platforms now have this feature, many BlackBerry fans say their device does it with less impact on battery life.
Many still consider BlackBerry the standard by which smartphone email handling is measured. Those who prefer “thumb typing” on a physical portrait-oriented keyboard like the BlackBerry. Another advantage of the BlackBerry is that it’s offered by almost every wireless carrier in the world.
Because it was made for business users, the BlackBerry has an edge when it comes to organizing business information. For instance, you can sort the address book entries by company name and see in a glance everyone who works for a particular company. Its inbox will hold as many messages as will fit into available memory, unlike some phones that limit the number of messages in the local inbox. This is a big advantage when you’re on a plane or otherwise away from the network connection. The BlackBerry email software also offers many options, such as “forward as” and “next unopened item.” Some users like all of this functionality, whereas others find the menus cluttered and think too many choices slow down navigation.
The BlackBerry also offers some of the best security in the smartphone space and is approved for use in federal national security agencies; this is important if you send and receive confidential information.
BlackBerry PlayBook tablet
The new BlackBerry PlayBook tablet was criticized for shipping initially without a native email app; you had to use the web browser or connect the tablet to a BlackBerry phone with BlackBerry Bridge software. After an update this summer, it will provide a very similar experience to that of the BlackBerry smartphones, as you can see in the PlayBook email demo. Reading email is far easier on the larger 7 inch screen, and in landscape mode, there’s room to have your list of messages in one pane on the left and the content of the selected message in a pane on the right.
iPhone and iPad
Apple’s iPhone and iPad are popular in the consumer space and gaining ground in the business world, as well. With the iPhone 4, Apple made a targeted effort to extend its reach into the enterprise. Setting up an email account — whether POP, IMAP, Exchange, or web mail — is quick and easy on the iPad and the iPhone. However, when iOS 4 launched, there were some problems syncing with Exchange, and many users had to download a fix before they could get it to work.
While the BlackBerries with physical keyboards have a dedicated fan base, I’ve talked to many people who have moved from BlackBerry to the iPhone and actually prefer the capacitive touch keyboard on the latter. The email client is simplified in comparison to the BlackBerry, offering only the more basic functions such as Reply, Reply All, Forward, Move to Folder, and Compose Mail. It uses icons rather than menus, which some find more user-friendly and faster to navigate and use. A common complaint about the iPhone is the requirement to use iTunes to sync email with Outlook (if you don’t have an Exchange account).
The iPhone’s 3.5 inch screen is larger than that of most BlackBerry devices (for example, the BlackBerry Bold Touch has a 2.8 inch VGA screen), which makes reading email a more pleasant experience, especially when viewing HTML mail.
The iPad makes the visual experience even better with a 10 inch screen, as you can see in Figure A.
The iPad enhances the email experience with its large screen. (Click the image to enlarge.)
Some people have reported problems with draft messages saved on the iPad disappearing, and/or sent mail not showing up in the Sent Messages folder.
Android phones and tablets
There are many different varieties of Android devices out there; indeed, one of the common complaints about the platform is that it’s fragmented. Different phones currently offered by carriers have different hardware configurations, run different versions of Android, and have different user interface overlays (e.g., Samsung’s TouchWiz, HTC’s SenseUI, Motorola’s Blur) and different preinstalled apps. Thus, it’s difficult to make general statements about Android devices.
Built-in mail clients
All of the Android phones I’ve tested from Samsung, HTC, and Motorola provided email clients that were easy to set up with Exchange, POP3, IMAP, and web mail accounts. A Gmail account is requested when you first set up the phone and is required for accessing the Android Market and other Google services that are built into Android.
The Android email clients generally make it easy to bypass problems with the Exchange server’s digital certificate, which can be a good thing if you’re a user who’s trying to get your mail to work, or a bad thing if you’re in charge of your company’s email security. The Android apps notify you that there’s a problem with the certificate and ask if you want to continue anyway. Windows phones, by contrast, require you to install the certificate on the device. In my experience, iOS devices just go ahead and connect without notifying you there’s a problem.
Different Android email apps have different interfaces, some of which I like better than others. Some models support a universal inbox, where you can see all the messages from multiple email accounts. However, the Gmail client is usually a separate app. A nice bonus is being able to set up more than one Exchange account.
An example of the mail client that comes with the HTC Droid Incredible 2 is shown in Figure B. This app makes it easy to access different accounts and different folders within an account. Unlike some Android mail clients, it also makes it easy to select and delete multiple messages via the checkboxes that appear beside each message in your inbox.
The mail client on the HTC Incredible 2 makes multiple deletes easy.
I generally like the Incredible 2’s mail app, and especially the fact that you can use the icons along the bottom of your inbox list to view all the contents of the inbox, conversations, favorites (just the mail from those contacts you’ve designated as favorites), just unread messages, or just flagged messages. You can also view meeting invitations or only those messages with attachments.
Alternative email apps
If you don’t like the built-in mail app, you can download an alternative Android email client. Some options include:
The above applies to both Android smartphones and tablets. The tablets obviously provide a larger display for reading email and also have room for the same dual pane email interface that you get with the BlackBerry PlayBook and the iPad. Note that some users have reported problems connecting Android 2.2 devices (specifically the Samsung Galaxy Tab) to ISP mail servers. This apparently is dependent on which ISP you use, as others don’t experience the problem.
An issue I have with most of the stock Android mail apps is that, if you have a large number of folders, you have to scroll through the entire list to get to the ones you want, even if you only use a few on the device. I’d like to see a way to designate “Favorite” folders or have recently used folders displayed at the top. You can see the folder list on the Galaxy Tab in Figure C.
My pet peeve with my most Android devices: having to scroll through my entire folder list to find the one I want to access.
Something I like about the Galaxy Tab and Galaxy S phones is that they come with Swype, a keyboard technology that allows you to move your finger from letter to letter without lifting it from the screen, greatly increasing typing speed on the small screen for those of us who take the time to put in a little practice with it. This means I can compose long email messages on the phone, something that’s pretty painful for me with most phone keyboards and even large tablet keyboards like the one on the iPad.
Windows Phone 7
One of my favorite things about Windows Phone 7 is its email experience. As with iOS (but not Android), it’s the same on every Windows Phone 7 device. The inbox is simple and shows your message titles at a glance, as shown in Figure D.
The Windows Phone 7 email interface is clean, simple, and user-friendly.
A nice feature is the category list across the top that lets you, with the swipe of a finger, view all your messages, just your unread messages, flagged messages, or messages marked urgent. However, it doesn’t allow you to sort by your favorite contacts as my Android email app does. It displays only the folders you use most when you select Folders. This makes it far easier to find those frequently used folders without excessive scrolling, and you can just select “Show all folders” if you want one that isn’t in the list.
It’s very easy to attach a photo to an email message on the Windows phone. Just touch the paperclip icon at the bottom of the Compose screen and pick the photo you want to send. A unique and handy feature is that when you select the attachment icon, you’ll also see a camera button that you can touch to take a photo, which will be automatically attached to your message.
Attaching another type of document, however, isn’t nearly so obvious. In fact, you have to leave Outlook and go to the Office hub, go to Documents, then tap and hold the document and select Send. I would never have figured this out on my own from within the email app; I had to look up the procedure on the web.
The Windows Phone 7 virtual keyboard is very good, for a one-key-at-a-time touchscreen keyboard, but I still prefer Swype, which it doesn’t have.
Coming soon: Mango
This month, Microsoft unveiled the features that will be included in the first big update for Windows Phone 7, called Mango. The update is expected to roll out later this year and, according to Steve Ballmer, will add more than 500 features and improvements.
This includes a number of enhancements to email functionality. You’ll be able to pin email folders to your homescreen — for instance, this can be a folder into which you filter all communications from a particular person, giving you the ability to go quickly to mail from favorites that was lacking. Conversation view (already available in the Android mail app) will be added, as well. You’ll be able to search the server for messages that are no longer stored on your phone — a very welcome addition. Mango also includes support for visual voicemail, a popular feature on the iPhone by which you can see a list of voicemail messages and play back only those you want to hear (instead of having to go through them all in order).
For enterprise users, integration with Microsoft Lync through a downloadable Lync Mobile app will allow you to share presence information with fellow workers. Information Rights Management (IRM) is also supported, so you can protect sensitive messages and prevent them from being forwarded.
All of today’s modern smartphone platforms have a lot to offer avid email users, and in many cases, selecting the right one is a matter of personal preference and involves a tradeoff between features. I currently use the Android-based HTC Incredible 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab for email on the go, but when the new Windows Phone 7 models with Mango come out (in the fall, we hope), there’s a good chance I’ll be switching to that platform.