Microsoft Exchange (with ActiveSync) support arrives for T-Mobile G1

The first Google Android OS cell phone, the T-Mobile G1, is considered a best seller by anyone’s standards, with 1 million devices sold in just 61 days (a faster pace than the first iteration of the Apple iPhone). While I’ve personally been pleased with its performance during my long-term testing of the device, I’ve noticed that many people I talk to are instantly dismissive of the the G1 – considering it a flawed first effort.

Commonly, this criticism traces back to the lack of proper Microsoft Exchange support on the device. Sure, you could always have your G1 log in and poll your Exchange mailbox using the standard IMAP4 e-mail protocol, but then you’ve sacrificed all the features that make consumers and corporations choose Exchange over simple e-mail: The integrated contacts list, the terrific calendar functionality,  extra e-mail features, built-in security, and a first-class desktop application for when you are at your desk.

And who’s to say that criticism isn’t well warranted? With its full QWERTY keyboard rounding out the input options aside from the clickable trackball and touchscreen, the G1 was immediately considered to be a potential competitor to Research In Motion’s BlackBerry line of devices, which currently serve as the default mobile communicator for today’s workforce. A lack of Exchange support out of the gate soured many on the notion that their BlackBerries could finally be replaced with a new, more multimedia-capable, “fun” device. (Apple’s iPhone, while delivering “fun” in spades, never got more than a moment’s consideration due to its lack of a physical QWERTY keyboard.)

I’d like to say that the original reason I began to delve so deeply into this topic is that one of the key services I developer for is externally hosted Exchange mail for small to mid-sized companies, but that’s not true. The truth is, like most developers, I carry a device that allows me instant access to my work e-mail on the occasion that system issues arise that require a developer to resolve. For years a BlackBerry device served this decidedly unsexy purpose, but when on day one of the T-Mobile G1’s release we managed to snag one (despite our headquarters being located in Toronto, Canada), I was an immediate convert. I set my G1 to log in to my work e-mail every 30 minutes and attempted to wean myself off depending on my BlackBerry 8700g.

At first, I was only partially successful: The “pull” method of checking e-mail, coupled with the lack of access to my calendar and contacts, required me to hold on to both devices, even if the BlackBerry mostly resided on a desk at home. But as I began to explore the inroads on Exchange support for the Google Android OS via various web forums (Android Community being a standout), a solution emerged: NitroDesk’s TouchDown For Android and Exchange.

For starters, let me allow the people at NitroDesk to make their introduction in their own words:

TouchDown lets you access your corporate Email, Contacts and Calendar right from your Android-powered phone. Works with Microsoft Exchange Server 2003/2007 SP1 and with most online Exchange hosting providers.

With TouchDown, your office email, calendar and contacts are available right at your fingertips. You can choose how long to retain your email on your phone. You can choose to download ALL your Exchange contacts to TouchDown any time you want, but get all changes automatically every time you check your email.

You get quick access to your day’s agenda, optimized for viewing on your phone. You can choose to dismiss past events to simplify the view.

My first use of TouchDown left me with a conflicted view, as via it basic Exchange functionality did exist but was hugely limited. Today, however, a preview version TouchDown made available to paid customers (yes, TouchDown is not free, but we’ll get to that later) boasts the key feature that truly turns the T-Mobile G1 into a corporate-friendly device: Push e-mail via Microsoft ActiveSync. In layman’s terms, new e-mail is displayed on your G1 as soon as it’s received by your mail system. In my case, this meant that I no longer was made aware of important e-mail a half hour after its arrival in my mailbox.

My quibbles with the latest version of TouchDown are minimal: The user interface for the account configuration screens has a few buttons that are uncomfortably small to be pressed using the touchscreen. The lack of a “Select All” function on the e-mail view means I have to individually highlight each message I want to delete if I have a number of messages arrive at once. Lastly, the cost of the application, which I’ll discuss separately.

NitroDesk offers two flavours of TouchDown:

  1. A free version, whose limitations are an Inbox-only view of e-mail with a history of one day, and read-only access to your contacts and calendar. You can download and install this version by searching for “touchdown” in the Android Market.
  2. A paid version of the software, which costs $29.99 USD. This version gives you access to all of e-mail folders with a message history of as long as you’d like, full read/write access to your contacts and calendar items, and as of this writing, push e-mail via ActiveSync in the 2.0.000 preview copy of the software.

My customer support experience as a paying customer has, to date, been excellent, with even a mixup with billing on my end taken care of quickly (we mistakenly ordered two copies of the software while only needing one). NitroDesk’s developers also seem to be extremely open to input on bugs and features to be included in future releases.

As push e-mail functionality becomes official for TouchDown, I expect that more consumers and organizations that at first turned away from the T-Mobile G1 as an enterprise-ready mobile device to get on board – especially with the release of the G1 outside of the United States (1, 2) and more cell phone providers and developers get behind the platform.

To prove I’m putting my money where my mouth is, I’ll be saying goodbye to my BlackBerry for good as of Monday. I encourage other tech workers stuck with unsexy mobile devices to follow suit.


  1. Federico Dort

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