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 data roaming rates—except that the rates are even higher in Europe, at $19.97 per megabyte. “AT&T must be printing money with this,” he says.

Cselle should know a bit about printing money: he’s a former Google software engineer who worked alongside Paul Buchheit and Sanjeev Singh, the inventors of Gmail. In fact, Buchheit and Singh—who went on to co-found FriendFeed, which was acquired by Facebook this week—are NextMail’s primary angel investors. After Google, Cselle spent some time as vice president of engineering at Xobni, the San Francisco startup that built a search utility for Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail program. He started building the reMail app while participating in Y Combinator’s venture incubator program in Mountain View, CA, last winter.

The other two big technical hurdles Cselle had to overcome, by the way, were programming reMail to quickly search the full text e-mail archives on the iPhone, and making the app work with all types of e-mail servers, which can use different versions of the IMAP Internet mail protocol. “There’s a lot of technology in this product,” Cselle says.

Gabor CselleWhich is what makes him comfortable about the app’s relatively high price: $4.99 right now, going up to $9.99 on September 1. That’s a lot more expensive than most apps in the iTunes App Store, and I asked Cselle why he decided against a lower price, or going the “freemium” route with a free basic version and a full-featured premium version. “We beta tested this app with about 100 people,” he says. “We asked them what they would pay and got responses that ranged much higher than the $4.99 we’re pricing this at…So we’re comfortable pricing reMail like this.”

Surprisingly, given Apple’s recent reputation for rejecting apps that perform functions that compete with (or highlight the shortcomings of) the iPhone’s built-in capabilities, Cselle says reMail “sailed through” the iTunes App Store approval process in only two weeks. Josh Lowensohn over at CNET speculates that Apple is getting ready to launch its own version of full-text e-mail search, which would make reMail unnecessary and might diminish reMail’s status in Apple’s mind as a competitor.

But it’s even more surprising that Apple approved GPush, the second iPhone app that I want to tell you about. GPush makes up for one of the inherent flaws in the iPhone’s built-in e-mail system, which is that it can’t “push” e-mail to your phone if Gmail is your primary e-mail service. Gmail messages are “fetched” rather than pushed— meaning they sit on Gmail’s servers for 15 minutes or more before the iPhone grabs them. You can get push e-mail on the iPhone if you switch to Apple’s $99-per-year MobileMe service or if your company has an Exchange server. But until GPush came along, Gmail users were out of luck.

The creation of Cambridge, MA-based startup Tiverias Apps, GPush costs just $0.99 and actually went live in the iTunes App Store on August 8. But the company had to withdraw the app from the store almost immediately after an unexpected crush of users brought its servers to a near-halt and exposed an architectural flaw. Co-founder Yoni Gontownik tells me the company is fixing the problems, and plans to make the app available again today. [Update, 10:00 a.m., August 17, 2009: The release was delayed over the weekend, but the app is now available in the App Store.]

GPush makes use of the new push notification functions included in the 3.0 version of the iPhone’s operating system. Whenever someone sends a new message to your Gmail account, a little note resembling a text message pops up on your iPhone’s unlock screen, showing the sender and subject of the message. You can then open the regular mail app to read the full message. That’s all there is to it—once you’ve entered your Gmail login information into the GPush app, you never have to open it again. (For geeks only: Behind the scenes, Tiverias’s servers are creating a persistent IMAP connection with Google’s Gmail servers. When you get a new message, Gmail notifies Tiverias, which notifies Apple, which pings your iPhone.)

The recent rejection of the native iPhone apps that Google developed for location-sharing and voice-mail handling (Latitude and Google Voice, respectively) have contributed to the impression that Apple won’t allow any application onto the iPhone that competes with built-in apps or impinges on businesses Apple may one day develop. And these are far from the only examples: Apple also blocks mobile browsers like Opera that would compete with Safari. Given that GPush gives Gmail users a way to get push notifications without paying $99 a year for Apple’s MobileMe service, the approval of GPush is more than a bit confounding.

Gontownik speculates that after the storm of protest generated by the Google Voice rejection, “there’s a lot of pressure on [Apple] to accept any app that could be considered controversial.” My own theory—and I hope it’s wrong—is that whoever approved the app at Apple didn’t get the memo about competing apps, and that once GPush has gotten more publicity, the company will decide that it doesn’t like the app after all.

But for the moment, GPush is in Apple’s good graces. Gontownik and co-founder Eliran Sapir assure me that the overload issues that brought down Tiverias’s servers last week are being fixed, using software called Scaler that moves most of the work to cloud servers at Amazon. So visit the App Store and give GPush a try—before Apple changes its mind.

Postscript: On the subject of iPhone apps, there’s an important improvement in the works for Fluent News, a free news aggregator app that I wrote about back in June. Fluent News already gathers headlines and summaries for up to 600 news articles across 12 categories such as business, politics, entertainment, and technology. In an update that the company plans to announce on Monday, the app will get a search feature, allowing users to look for current or archived stories by keyword, the same way you might do at a Web-based news site like Google News. Fluent Mobile, the company that makes the app, says the new feature will make Fluent News “the first iPhone application to allow users to perform keyword searches across top news sources.”

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

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