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DirectPush in the Real World

Since 2000, I've been toting a Palm-powered smart phone. This week, I made the switch to Windows Mobile, and it's all because of Exchange.

I started with a Kyocera 6135, which was approximately the size of my wife's shoe. My co-workers laughed at it, until they saw that I could get email on it. Although it was big, clunky, and slow, it was an excellent telephone.

When Kyocera released the 7135, I switched to it. It was still bigger and clunkier than most of the phones I saw other people toting, but it had a good color screen, a real phone keypad, and ran all my favorite Palm OS applications--plus it was an excellent telephone.

When my 7135 died, I replaced it with a Treo 650. I was really excited about this because of the Treo's size and ergonomics. It fit in my pocket, it had a decent keyboard and a great screen, it supported Bluetooth, and it still ran all my favorite Palm OS applications. However, it had some flaws. The biggest one in my mind was the terrible Palm OS VersaMail application. It was buggy and slow; although Palm licensed Exchange ActiveSync (EAS), Palm chose to hobble the EAS implementation so that it couldn't do Over-The-Air (OTA) synchronization of contact or calendar data.

Along the way, I've tested a number of Windows Mobile devices, including the AT&T/Audiovox SMT5600 (similar to the current Cingular 2125) and the Verizon/UTStarcom xv6600 (big and clunky, but with fast Evolution-Data Optimized--EVDO--data). None were compelling enough as phones or PDAs to get me to switch. I insist on having a real keyboard on my devices, and they must first and foremost work well as telephones. That set a pretty high bar, and I hadn't found any Windows Mobile devices that made me want to investigate switching.

The release to manufacturing (RTM) of the Messaging and Security Feature Pack for Exchange Server 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2) made me start thinking wistfully of DirectPush, and how nice it would be to have a device that supported it. I already had a decent mail solution on my Treo thanks to a combination of Snapper Software's SnapperMail and DataViz's RoadSync (an EAS client that runs on several platforms, including PalmOS). Wireless calendar and contact sync were looking better and better, though, and I started thinking that I'd switch if I could find a Messaging and Security Feature Pack-capable device. However, these took a long time to come to market.

Oddly, cellular carriers think nothing of selling devices with old versions of Windows Mobile; for example, Cingular sells the HP iPaq hw6510, which has Windows Mobile 2003, Second Edition on it. That's like going to the store and buying a new PC that has Windows 2000 on it, yet carriers treat this kind of thing as normal. Because each carrier has to certify Messaging and Security Feature Pack for its devices and release its own update, I didn't have high hopes.

However, a funny thing happened at Exchange Connections: I saw tons of people using HTC Wizard-based devices such as the T-Mobile MDA, the Qtek 9100, and the Cingular 8125. The HTC Wizard platform has a great screen, built-in Bluetooth and WiFi, and a nice-sized slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Several of the people I talked to told me that there was an unofficial ROM upgrade that added Messaging and Security Feature Pack functionality for the various flavors of Wizard. This ROM image isn't supported, and installing it may void your warranty, give you hives, or get you a visit from Microsoft's legal department; having said that, it seemed to work well on the devices I saw as an interim measure until the carriers release their certified versions.

Given that my existing Treo won't work anyway when I'm in Europe, I needed some kind of phone, so I decided to take the plunge. I bought a T-Mobile MDA and installed the Messaging and Security Feature Pack ROM. It has worked flawlessly so far, and the DirectPush experience was excellent. I didn't have to configure anything on my Exchange servers, and setting up the phone was as simple as entering my email server information and waiting for the initial sync.

That's not to say that life on Windows Mobile has been perfect so far, but most of my complaints arise from differences in implementation between Palm OS (which I know like the back of my hand) and Windows Mobile. I do wish the built-in messaging application had in-message controls for going to the next and previous messages, and there are a few PalmOS programs (e.g., SilverWare's TravelTracker) that don't seem to have Windows Mobile equivalents. Probably my biggest complaint per se is that, as with Outlook, you can have only one EAS account per profile (in this case, per device). Because I have three Exchange mailboxes, all of which I use heavily, it would be nice to be able to wirelessly sync all three of them; however, IMAP is an acceptable substitute for two of them.

I'll be writing more about the Exchange mobility experience in the future; as more and more devices get official Messaging and Security Feature Pack support (like the Palm Treo 700w, which got it this week; see ), these devices will become increasingly important players in the mobile email space.

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