Over-the-Air Puts Mobile Email Over-the-Top

In 1982, a man named Geoff Goodfellow conceived of a way to send messages from Arpanet, the Internet's precursor, to alphanumeric pagers, the precursor to today's smart phones. He announced his idea in a message called "Electronic Mail for People on the Move," which was sent out via an Arpanet mailing list. Compared with today's wireless mobile services, of course, Goodfellow's invention may seem somewhat quaint. But anyone who's sent email from a mobile device owes this man a debt of gratitude.

Goodfellow's idea was eventually patented by a company that later sued Blackberry maker RIM after that company popularized wireless, mobile access to email. Regardless of the origins, of course, the genie is out of the bottle, and today it's possible to access email wireless, or over-the-air (OTA), from a variety of mobile devices running on a number of mobile platforms. Apple has recently gained some notoriety for pushing OTA email, calendaring, and contacts functionality to businesses via Microsoft Exchange, but also to consumers via a service called MobileMe.

I rushed over to the iPhone like the trendy lemming that I am in mid-2007, and I've recently updated to the slightly enhanced iPhone 3G, which adds support for Exchange and MobileMe. But I've also been testing OTA access to Exchange via a Windows Mobile 6.1-based device, a Samsung BlackJack II. These modern entries in the OTA sweepstakes prove that Goodfellow's innovative idea was as brilliant as it was obvious, as he once described it. This is the way everyone will access email in the future. If they're not doing so already, that is.

To understand what I mean by that, consider how mobile sync has evolved over the years since the early days of the Palm, Windows CE/Pocket PC/Windows Mobile, or whatever mobile platform you prefer. Until fairly recently, mobile devices were PC companion products, things that had to be tethered to a PC in order for information to be transferred in either direction. The relationship was also one of master and slave, with the PC in the master role: You would create and maintain important databases like your contacts list and schedule on the PC and sync them to the device. Yes, you could make changes on the device, too. But everything revolved around the PC.

There were side issues to this technique as well. Depending on the device type you chose, you might have had to use intermediary software on the PC to get data out of native applications like Outlook before they could be used and understood by the device. Some of these solutions, like Palm Desktop, were so horrific they still cause involuntary spasms in those who were forced to deal with their weird inconsistencies and peculiarities. More recent entries, like Apple's iTunes--a curious choice for syncing with mobile data devices, when you think about it--are just as bad.

OTA changes everything. Instead of tethering a device to your PC, the device itself becomes a first class citizen in your computing experience. On the device, you can type in your name, email address, and password, and connect to an Exchange server wirelessly, using server auto-configuration. Contacts, email, tasks, and calendaring information are synced instantly and effortlessly. (Well, at least for the user. Server-side Exchange configuration of this information remains a bit confusing, in my opinion.)

As you roam about, information that's changed on the device is automatically replicated back to the server. So the device becomes just another window to this data, equal and identical to other windows, such as Outlook Web Access (OWA) in a browser or Outlook on your PC. In fact, you don't ever have to use a PC at all. Increasingly, I suspect more and more people will do just that, as devices get more sophisticated and as a coming generation of smart phone-only users matures.

OK, I'm an old timer. But I do get a lot of email, so I use OTA access to do what I call "email triage." If I'm standing in a line at the airport or otherwise have time to kill when I'm on the road, I can move through my inbox, moving, reading, and deleting email as needed. I'm not much for typing long messages on a smart phone's tiny keyboard, but many are, and they can live their entire email lives on such a device. I save the long messages for the PC. But the choice is wonderful, and when I do access email on the PC, I do so having already removed most of the non-essential messages.

Thanks, Mr. Goodfellow.

By the way, if you're interested in Geoff Goodfellow's story, The New York Times' John Markoff wrote an interesting biography of the man back in 2006.

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