Last week, I wrote an editorial for Windows IT Pro in which I discussion a hope—a dream, really—for a future of tech pluralism, where one could effortlessly mix and match digital ecosystems on any variety of devices. Today, this is somewhat possible depending on which mix of services and devices you prefer, but there are stumbling blocks too. And here's a great example: The very common scenario where one might wish to use Gmail with an iPhone or other iOS device.
Three quick notes up front.
Tech pluralism. If you haven't, please do read my editorial, Thinking About Tech Pluralism. In it, I discuss how tech pluralism—"the ability to run any app or service on the device of your choice, and to mix and match as you see fit"—puts the user ahead of platform ideology and lock-in. This is mostly a dream, but as I'll keep arguing, the smartest thing you can do as a consumer of technology products and services is to pick those that are the most promiscuous, if you will.
Sleeping with the enemy. I used to use the name "Sleeping with the enemy" for this kind of article, but I feel like tech plurality is both more concise and perhaps better attuned to the attitude I'm trying to convey. This isn't really about usurping a rival platform, it's about getting things to work together pragmatically.
Gmail + iPhone? You may be wondering why I didn’t choose at least one Microsoft technology for this article. I could have. But I find this one particularly interesting because it involves some weird inter-company politics and dynamics. Plus, both Gmail and iPhone are really popular. People are going to want to use these two things together. And, what the heck. This just came up...
On Sunday, I was talking to my brother, and comparing notes. He had bought a new iPhone 6 Plus but was going to be returning it, in part because it didn't work with Gmail properly. That confused me, as I configured my Gmail account on the iPhone and didn't see any issues. So I asked him what he meant by that.
He explained that there was no way to configure the iPhone—iOS, in other words—to display new email when it arrived. Instead, the best he could do was configure it to collect his email every 15 minutes, which he found unacceptable. He lives on his phone—indeed, it's actually kind of annoying how often he received phone calls and texts—and he was going to go back to Android since this worked better there.
As a backgrounder, I've been using Windows Phone full time for over four years, so I can't claim to be an expert in iPhone/iOS arcana. As the years have elapsed since my last month of full-time iPhone usage—June 2010—my understanding of the details has grown fuzzy. But I explained to him that Gmail was still Exchange Active Sync (EAS) compatible—Google announced that it was ending this support for new accounts only a few years back—and this would give him push email capabilities. In other words, his email would come in immediately.
And then I looked at my iPhone.
As it turns out, iOS today does not configure Gmail to use EAS, probably because Apple can't be sure that every single Gmail account will work with EAS. (Most will, actually, but that could change over time.) Instead, when you step through the Add Account wizard in Settings and choose the Google account type, iOS configures the email part of that account as ... IMAP. Which doesn't support push. So iOS uses "fetch" instead, a less elegant system that puts the onus for finding new email on the client, not the server. And for Gmail, the fastest it will fetch new email is every 15 minutes.
I told my brother that we could look up Gmail's EAS settings online, and could use the Exchange account type instead to manually configure iOS to use Gmail as God intended, with push email support. And I set out to figure that one out myself as I was sort of amazed this didn't work more elegantly by default.
Note: As some have noted in the comments, Google actually did discontinue EAS support for non-paid Google Apps customers. So even if I get this to work, it won't help most people. --Paul
But then I remembered that Google makes a Gmail app for iOS for the same reason that Microsoft makes an Outlook app on Android: It can't trust the built-in email application on the platform to work properly, and to provide the unique functional bits that its users expect. So I recommended that he download the Gmail app, which on iOS provides such Gmail niceties as Archive and label and star support.
Looking at this, my brother saw the solution he wanted: The Gmail app on iOS very closely resembles the Gmail app in Android, and he was used to that. (As Android users know, Google provides a high quality Gmail app for its own system in Android and then a truly middling Email app for other email systems.) So he was happy and, who knows, he may even keep the iPhone.
So here we have two very popular tech solutions from two of the biggest rivals in the industry. To the user, Gmail just works when they configure the account in iOS, and for many people, that 15 minute limit won't even be noticed. But in dropping support for EAS, Google has in effect hurt customers that use iPhone and other iOS devices, which was probably not the intention. This used to work more elegantly on iOS.
Oddly enough, it still does work on Windows Phone. There, you can configure your Google account and still have push-based access to your email. (More oddly, this isn't yet the case on "big" Windows, where the Google account type no longer works properly.)
Why can't or doesn't Apple offer a more elegant solution on iOS? Obviously, I have no idea. But in the same way that Google search results don't come up when you search with Siri on an iPhone, I suspect there is something petty behind this. Both Apple and Google could probably do better by their shared customers. And in doing so, we'd be one step closer to true tech pluralism.