I finally received my iPhone 5S after a three week wait. While I am excited to have my new phone, it has meant giving up on using ActiveSync to get email pushed directly to my phone from my gmail account.
Last year, Google decided to stop supporting Microsoft’s proprietary ActiveSync for mobile devices in favor of their extension to IMAP to enable automatic push. Unfortunately, their extension is not based on any actual standard, and Apple has not implemented it.
Google has allowed existing devices to continue to use ActiveSync, but it has blocked any new activations. This meant that as soon as my wife and I received our new phones, ActiveSync stopped working. We were forced to fall back on IMAP, which meant that mail would be on a fetch schedule of no faster than every 15 minutes.
Talk about a first world problem! I have to wait a whole 15 minutes to get notified of new emails?! The horror…!
But it annoys me nonetheless. There are a few reasons I want my email pushed. One is that sometimes an important email comes in, and I want to know right away and respond quickly. Another is that sometimes there is a conversation going on over email between a few people, andI want to participate in real time. Also, frequently fetching email can hurt battery life, so while it can go as low as 15 minutes, many people recommend 30 or 60 minutes.
One obvious answer is to switch to using Google’s own gmail app for iOS, which supports push notifications. However, I don’t want to do this for a couple of reasons. First off, I don’t really like the interface. Second, I keep track of a couple of legacy email accounts, and I like having the unified inbox on my phone. Third, many apps integrate directly with the built-in mail client on the iPhone, and switching between it and the gmail app is confusing.
Another answer would be to start paying Google $50 a year to turn ActiveSync back on. I use Google Apps to run my own domain, and I am grandfathered in to get it for free. If I were to upgrade to the paid version ($50/user/year), I could get ActiveSync again. While I don’t necessarily object to paying $50 for it, in the future I do plan to activate email addresses for my kids when they are old enough. This would automatically increase my costs to $150, just so that I can be pushing email to my own phone. I’m not ready to sign up for that expense.
Many people have proposed some complicated solutions for maintaining push email. They generally involve forwarding your email to a different service that supports push, like iCloud, and then setting up some alternate return addresses so that the messages still appear to come from gmail. This is more complicated than I wanted to go.
Finally, I hit on a simple solution. By tinkering with the notification settings, I can keep using the Mail app while leveraging Google’s gmail app for push notifications. The key feature for push emails for me is to simply be notified that a new email has been received and the subject line, and this is simple to achieve.
Here’s how it works:
First, I install Google’s gmail app and set it up. To be clear, I have no intentions of actually using this to send and receive emails on my iPhone, but I need it installed on the device for its push notifications. Within the gmail app itself, I set the notifications to “All New Mail” so that Google will send an alert with every message, including mundane items like shipping notifications.
Then, within the iPhone’s “Notification Center”, I make the following configuration options for the gmail app:
- Set the alert style to “Banners”
- Turn off the “Badge App Icon”, since I have no intention of actually opening the gmail app and the badges will bug me
- Turn sounds on
- Turn “Show in Notification Center” on
- Set it to include the 10 most recent items
- Turn on “Show on Lock Screen”
I then throttle back the Fetch schedule for the mail accounts on my iPhone to 30 minutes.
With this setup, I am 90% there. My phone is only fetching email occasionally, but as soon as new message to my primary email account comes in, Google sends a push notification to my phone with the sender, subject line, and the first few lines of the message:
The alert has come from the Gmail app, rather than the built-in Mail app, but this isn’t a big deal. When I want to actually read the email, I still open up the regular Mail app. Since it is only fetching messages every 30 minutes, it won’t already be in the inbox, but it will immediately perform a fetch and pop right in:
This works well – I still have my unified inbox using the iPhone’s built-in mail app, I’m not paying $50 a year for ActiveSync service, and I have push notifications.
There is one more modification to avoid confusion, however. The built-in Mail app is still fetching email every 30 minutes, and when it grabs new messages that I haven’t read yet, it will show me a new notification. This will be confusing, since I will now be getting double notifications for every message – one immediately when it arrives via the Gmail app, and another 15-30 minutes later when the iPhone’s mail app fetches it.
I don’t want to disable notifications for the Mail app altogether, since I do want to get the notified when a message pops in from when of my secondary email boxes. The solution is that iOS actually allows you to set custom Notification Center options for each email account separately:
For my primary email account within “Notification Center”, I turn off the banners and sounds, but I leave the badge icon on. I leave the banners on my for my other accounts. This way, when a message pops in for a secondary account on the 30 minute schedule, it will pop up an alert, but messages to my primary account are silent, except for updating the badge number.
This seems to be working perfectly. I have hidden the gmail app off in a folder and continue to just use the Mail app, but I’m notified of messages as they arrive.
It has two minor inconveniences, but I can live with them. The first is that if I choose the “Slide to View” option on the notification in the lock screen, it takes me into the Gmail app. The second is that if I don’t read a message when it arrives, the badge icon on the Mail app won’t update until it does its next 30 minute fetch, but this seems like a reasonable compromise.