What will fix mobile email?

A couple of conversations today prompted me to take a fresh look at the "mobile email problem", as I have come to think of it.  After reading our whitepaper "Email Marketing for the Third Screen" a client asked, "But I am still not sure exactly what to do!"  Yep, you are not alone.

There are a lot of ideas out there about how to solve the problem.  Some are better than others.  Some are simply poor and short-sided... but I digress.  Fact is, all of the proposed solutions are nothing more than workarounds to a complicated and baffling problem derived from the fact that no common coding standards exist.  Optimize for one scenario and you mess up performance for another.  There is no simple quick fix.

Now that I have rained on everyone's parade, the larger question really is "What is going to FIX the mobile email problem?"  This question was raised in a discussion this afternoon.  The following is an edited response I posted to that group.  Enjoy!

The right answer is for mobile devices to adopt standards for rendering email such that current coding standards work.  This is similar to the standardization efforts that helped unify the internet.  Remember when the internet was littered with images like this?  Thankfully they are gone now.

The initial thought was to muster the email troops and lobby for the adoption of standards that would better serve the consumer.  However, the market forces against getting manufacturers to standardize how they treat email are simply too strong at the moment.  Consider that iPhone recently leapfrogged the entire industry in their ability to render email and now RIM (Blackberry) has 
Apple pegged as enemy #1.  How well these devices support mobile email is a huge competitive advantage and when you are talking about selling cell phones, you are talking about big, big bucks.  In several attempts to engage with people who could influence the adoption of industry standards I was met with head shaking and laughing, as if to say, "How naive?"

Fortunately, Apple has done more for creating the necessary pressure than any lobby could ever hope to do.  Their move with the iPhone was a huge step toward "rendering email properly". The pressure they have applied to the market to handle email and the online experience well (no matter how much one may agree or disagree about "how well" thus far) is already accelerating changes in the market.  RIM knows they are in a fight as they enter the consumer smartphone market.  They will need to update their enterprise mail server capabilities and get with the times... or get their teeth kicked in.  All Apple needs to do is drop their price to $100 for a smartphone and RIM drops out of the consumer battle.  Since the consumer smartphone market is is where the big money is in the coming years, it is imperative for RIM to upgrade the way they handle email and the web.  I believe that B2B trends will follow quickly... or else RIM will go the way of Lotus Notes to be only used when IT has already invested too much to pull out.

My belief is that this problem will fix itself through market competition in the next 2-3 years, which is faster than a lobby would probably have an impact. We have not seen the long term solution yet, but it is coming--the competition is fierce, and that is a good thing for our cause.  After getting laughed at realizing the economic forces at work, we stopped trying to beat the "thy must standardize" drum.

For now, mobile email remains a big challenge.  Only a select few have figured out solutions that are even halfway decent.  Nothing stellar.  There is the trade-off between desktop appearance and mobile rendering.  Where mobile is highly likely (e.g., travel alerts) then go with simple single column, boring old email.  If simply trying to accommodate for a mobile audience where readership is more likely to happen on a desktop, then then trying to minimize the distortion of email on the mobile device by using tools like Pivotal Veracity eDesign Optimizer for mobile devices and then leverage a click to view solution (where the landing page determines the type of browser and then renders the page accordingly). Unfortunately, that is still the best I have come across. 

ExactTarget is committed to investigating other alternatives.  Moreover, this is a personal passion of mine and there are many others at ExactTarget passionate about finding better workarounds.  We are optimistic that a decent workaround is on the horizon, but not foolishly so--there will not be a perfect workaround until standards emerge.  If you have ideas that you would recommend or like to try, let us know, we would love to work with you.

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