If your wondering about the dearth of posts lately, I've been traveling with almost no access to the net other than through my phone. I probably should have tried to do a mobile post or two, using mobile web based e-mail and WordPress' e-mail to post feature. Unfortunately, I never got around to setting up and testing the special post by e-mail address before I left.
What I did do while on vacation was attempt to manage all my e-mail using only my phone and the mobile web. I subscribe to a number of mailing lists and get about 50 e-mails a day. I configured the various mailing lists to send e-mail to accounts I'd set up in Gmail, MSN Live Mail and Yahoo Mail. I arranged it so each service got roughly equal amounts of mail.
I was able to keep up with my e-mail using only the mobile web and in the process I discovered something rather interesting - one of the three mobile web mail sites was noticeably much faster than the other two. It was a much more enjoyable and productive experience to read my e-mail on the faster site. Which led me to conclude that the most important single feature of a mobile e-mail site is its speed! I'd always thought that all mobile web mail sites were equally slow but I was wrong. When I got home I decided to run a speed test comparing the big three of mobile web mail. I used a simple benchmark - the time required to delete the current e-mail and load the next one. I repeated the test at least three times on each site over a period of a couple of days and averaged the results. All tests were conducted at the same location in San Francisco using a Motorola i855 phone with an 80 kbit/sec WiDEN connection and four bars (the maximum on this phone) of signal strength. My tests confirmed what I had noticed in the field - one site was about three times faster than the other two! Which site was the fast one? Read on to find out.
First Yahoo. I initially tried the new Yahoo Mobile Mail Beta that I recently reviewed. In my review I called the beta promising and I still consider that to be the case even though I was not able to effectively read my mail using it. The beta simply refused to load when I used my Motorola i855's built in browser which is the latest Version 7 from Openwave. When I tried to load the beta I got a WAP1 wml page with only the words "Wml not supported, yet". It's nice that wml will eventually be supported but the Openwave browser, since Version 6, is not wml-only, it fully supports WAP2 with xhtml-mp and css and should have no problem rendering the beta. On top of that there is even a link to the beta at the top of the Inbox in the WAP2 legacy Yahoo Mobile Mail application. Following that link leads to the same "Wml not supported..." message. Classic garden pathing. Having no joy with the built in browser, I tried Opera Mini which is what I use 90% of the time anyway. I was able to load the Yahoo Beta in Mini and could read e-mail - sometimes. The problem is that the beta timed out more often than not when retrieving a page of an e-mail. Opera Mini seems to have a rather aggressive timeout of about 15 seconds and the Beta is just a little too slow to load pages reliably. I didn't benchmark it as I wasn't able to run through the full test even once without a timeout. Beta software is often slow as it tends to do extra logging for debugging purposes and probably isn't running on production grade servers. I'm sure that when the beta goes live it will have performance at least equal to the current Yahoo Mobile Mail.
Speaking of the legacy version of Yahoo Mail for mobile (review), it is definitely usable in both the built-in browser and with Opera Mini. My delete current message and then load next message test took five clicks and averaged 19 seconds. It felt slow but I could at least read my mail.
Y!Mail: wml/xhtml/html Features: Usability:
Moving on to the MSN Live Mail (full review and more screen shots), again there were problems using this site from the phone's built in browser. Whenever I tried, I got the message:
"The service you are trying to reach is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later. For more information about MSN Mobile, please visit our PC site at http://mobile.msn.com"
I tried again later, a half a dozen times over the past 10 days and always got this message. It's not just the Live Mail Beta either, good old HotMail fails too with the exact same message! To make it even sadder, MSN and Hotmail are on the provider's (Boost Mobile - Sprint/Nextel's prepaid arm) home deck so Sprint is paying Microsoft for the privilege of offering their customers an application that probably doesn't work on most of their high end phones. The top third of Nextel's current line of phones, all the ones with a 176x220 screen, except for the Windows Mobile i930, use the same Openwave 7 browser. Again I was forced to use Opera Mini. With Mini I was able to load and run both Live Mail and Hotmail. Live Mail which I wrote extensively about here, takes 21 seconds and three clicks to delete the current e-mail and load the next, slightly slower than Yahoo. The legacy Hotmail Mobile is just as slow, again 21 seconds, but it takes an anoying 10 clicks, so the Live beta is an improvement in usability at least.
Live Mail: html Features: Usability:
HotMail: html Features: Usability:
The speed champ is Gmail (review and more screen shots here) by a wide margin. When reading e-mails that are part of a "conversation", Gmail takes only one click and four seconds to delete the current e-mail and load the next. Moving from one conversation to the next takes slightly longer. 5 clicks and 10 seconds. When I have a lot of e-mails, most fall into a few conversations so I can really fly through them averaging maybe 1.5 clicks and 5 seconds per delete and reload cycle - an impressive 4 times faster than MSN Live, Hotmail or Y!Mail. I did discover an annoying bug with the way Gmail handles long e-mails which it splits up into multiple pages. When you delete an e-mail in a conversation, Gmail automatically loads the next e-mail in that conversation which is exactly what I would want. However if you are on the second or later page of the e-mail and delete it, Gmail loads up the next e-mail starting with it's second or later page - ugh. The work-around is to use the browser's back button to return to the first page of the e-mail before deleting it.
Gmail Mobile: xhtml Features: Usability:
This table summarizes the email speed test. Gmail's speed is really impressive, up to four times faster than it's nearest competitor. Even in the worst case where none of your emails are in conversations, Gmail is still twice as fast as the others.
Pretty impressive. In light of this test I've readjusted these site's usability ratings as speed is to me a major component of usability. In my original review, I mentioned that invalid html on the Gmail mobile site was causing it to fail to load on many mobile browsers including Opera Mini. That problem seems to be fixed now too so I heartily recommend Gmail to anyone wanting to read their email on the go using nothing more than a basic phone's mobile web browser.
Aside: With all the issues I've had with the Openwave browser and e-mail sites you might think that this browser is not very good. On the contrary, I consider it one of the very best of the browsers that come pre-installed on mainstream phones. I've accessed hundreds of different sites using this browser and have had very few problems. It's kind of amazing that I've had so much trouble with these mobile mail sites. In the case of both Yahoo Beta and Hotmail/Live, the problem seems to be with misuse of browser sniffing by the sites in question rather than a problem with the browser itself. Yahoo and Microsoft seem to have built their sites to only accept a request from browsers that they recognize and have tested against and to throw up an error message when an unknown browser comes visiting. To me this is really a bad strategy. There are thousands of mobile browsers. Even the best mobile browser capability repositories like the open source WURFL or commercial Volantis are missing many devices especially the latest ones. If your site refuses to load when faced with an unknown browser you stand a good chance of losing the early adopter who always has the latest phone. But early adopters are the very people who are most likely to find your site and spread the word, hardly the type of users you want to block. The right way to handle unknown devices is to put up a fully functional cHtml or wml page with minimum sized images. If it works, and it usually does, great and even if it doesn't the user is no worse off than they would be getting a "Your browser is not supported..." type message.