Startups Give E-mail a Big Boost on the iPhone with ReMail and GPush

8/14/09Follow @wroush

As a device for managing your e-mail, the Apple iPhone isn’t bad, but it does have a few quirks and limitations. This week, I want to write about two brand-new applications that work around those failings, making the iPhone into a far more powerful tool for staying connected.

The first app grabbed my attention because of my recent brush with almost-literal highway robbery. My drive to Michigan last week to visit my parents took me through southern Ontario. Soon after I crossed over Buffalo’s Peace Bridge into Fort Erie, this astonishing little SMS message popped up on my iPhone: “AT&T Free Message: International data rate of $15.00/MB applies. Unlimited domestic data rate plan does NOT apply outside the U.S.”

I immediately put my phone into airplane mode, fearful of receiving any more SMS messages or e-mails, which, at $15 per megabyte, would have cost me more than the gas I was burning. That meant I was effectively off the grid during the four hours it took to cross this little corner of Canada. I survived the hardship—but the experience did highlight the problem that outrageous roaming charges can pose for travelers who use mobile e-mail a lot.

As it happens, a new app called reMail can take some of the sting out of this dilemma. It went live in the iTunes App Store yesterday, and I learned about it from Jessica Livingston at Y Combinator, the California venture incubator where reMail got its start. ReMail stores your entire e-mail archive on your iPhone, which means you can read your messages without ever having to go online. You can’t do that with the iPhone’s built-in mail application, which only keeps the last 50 messages. ReMail also lets you search the full text of all your messages—which, again, the built-in mail app can’t do. (In a recent update, Apple added a search function to the mail app that can scan older messages stored in the cloud, but it’s limited to the subject line and the sender and recipient addresses.)

“I live in e-mail while I’m traveling—all my meetings are scheduled via e-mail,” says Gabore Cselle, the founder of San Francisco-based NextMail, the one-man startup behind reMail. “So I need access to my e-mails, all the time. Building an app which would let me take all my e-mail with me seemed like a good idea. And it’s saving me money.”

reMail screenshotI’ve been testing reMail, and so far it’s working exactly as advertised. The app connects to your Web-based e-mail account—it works with Gmail and any IMAP-enabled e-mail service—and sucks down your entire e-mail archive. That process can take a while (reMail spent about eight hours downloading the 78,000 messages in my Gmail archive) but the upside is that you only have to do it once. After that, each time you start the app, it just grabs your most recent messages.

What’s amazing about reMail is that it uses a relatively small amount of your iPhone’s memory. My 78,000 Gmail messages are taking up about 4.3 gigabytes of space on Google’s servers. But the reMail database on my iPhone is about one-tenth that size: 432 megabytes. “Compressing your e-mails down to a size that people would find acceptable” was one of the three biggest technical hurdles to making reMail work, Cselle says. Exactly how he pulled that off is “a state secret,” he jokes, but part of the solution was to grab just the text of each message, not attachments, which take up about 70 percent of the storage space at Gmail, according to Cselle.

“We ‘lazy load’ attachments,” he says, adding, “We download them to your iPhone when you first click on them, and then keep it there permanently. Once open, you can be confident that you’ll have that PDF or JPG with you wherever you go.” Of course, the more attachments you download, the more space reMail will take up on your phone.

The only problem I’ve experienced with reMail is that it sometimes fails to connect with Gmail, but I suspect the problem is on Google’s side—lately I’ve been seeing all sorts of server errors and delays with Gmail on the Web, too. (What’s up with that, Google?)

Cselle says he got the idea for reMail because his parents live in Switzerland, and every time he visits them, he gets the same AT&T text message about … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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