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Who Needs "Push" E-Mail?

A lot of gadget owners these days demand "push" e-mail -- the ability to have a message show up on a handheld device the instant it lands on your mail server. BlackBerry users swear by this feature, and iPhone users are looking forward to getting it through the new Mobile Me service Apple announced yesterday.

When you talk to these folks, some of them describe any kind of computer with a regular mail service as simply unacceptable -- an absurd compromise on basic features akin to buying a black-and-white TV.

But the real difference between push e-mail and plain old e-mail amounts to a few minutes.

That's because any standard e-mail program already comes preset to look for and download new messages at a fixed interval. It's not as if your messages will remain cooped up on a server until you tell the program to grab them; they'll still appear in your mail software automatically.

True, not all mail programs fetch messages at the same default interval. Apple's Mail checks every 5 minutes and Mozilla Thunderbird does so every 10. But Microsoft's Windows Mail and Outlook idles for a full 30 minutes before looking for new mail.

Half an hour is a long time to wait for an important message, but that's not an argument against regular e-mail. It's an argument against stupid default settings and for changing them to a more sensible number.

So you're left with a choice of using some complicated, proprietary, perhaps failure-prone push e-mail system or using a simpler, open setup that can land a new message on your screen, at most, 300 seconds later.

(There are standards-based ways to push messages to a mail program, but let's set them aside for now.)

Now think about how often you need to see a message immediately or the world will end. How many of those times will somebody trust such a critical message only to e-mail, where it can get caught up by a spam filter or lost in the general clutter of your inbox? Using one of the most congested communications mediums available for the most urgent notices imaginable doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me; if you want to get somebody's attention instantly, you pick up the phone and call them.

Then consider how you process incoming e-mail. Pushing a message to your screen can't push it into your brain. If you can react and respond to each new e-mail as it arrives, you have a lot more free time than I do. Me, I usually wait until I have an idle moment to scan over the latest batch of new messages, then delete, file or answer them as necessary.

So what does push e-mail do for you, exactly? Why pay extra for it? How does insisting that you can't function without such a thing not invite a "Get a life!" response?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 10, 2008; 10:14 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
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