iPhone app: Gmail Alerts

by Dan Lane on 9th October 2009

GMail Alerts (iTunes link) is an iPhone app and service that uses Apple’s push notification service to notify you of new mail arriving in your GMail account.

Now I know what you’re going to say… “why would I use that? GMail supports push on the iPhone natively now” and yes, I thought the same thing at first but bear with me.

GMail Alerts is developed by cursed iPhone developer Ed Lea. I say cursed because Ed’s first major application was a Sky+ recording application and his second was an MMS application. Eventually Sky realised there was money to be made in them thar hills and released their own official (and free) Sky+ recording app and, of course, the iPhone now supports MMS natively.

Continuing The Curse of Ed Lea it was natural that only weeks after launching GMail Alerts there would be official Exchange push support from Google that enables anyone with an Exchange compatible handset (such as the iPhone) to have push e-mail support for free.

But hold on just a minute, because I actually think Ed’s GMail Alerts app is better than the official GMail push support and that’s why I still use it.

It's a great app but doesn't make for exciting screenshots.

It's a great app but doesn't make for exciting screenshots.

First of all it has support for multiple accounts. The Exchange client on the iPhone only supports one account but most mobile geeks I know have multiple GMail accounts, that’s certainly the case for all the Really Mobile team. In a future version I’m told we’ll be able to choose a different notification sound for each account.

Next up we have quiet mode which allows you to disable push sounds between certain hours. I’ve got mine set to 1am until 7am during which time I won’t be woken up by any late-night spam but I don’t have to set my phone to silent and risk missing any important calls or text messages.

Last and definitely least importantly; the push notifications for GMail Alerts almost always arrive before the official GMail ones. I had the two services running side-by-side for a couple of days and the official push alerts would sometimes lag behind the Gmail Alerts notifications by up to a minute. This isn’t a huge thing for me as 1 second to 60 seconds is still “realtime” enough for me.

I hate to end on a down note but there is one major flaw in GMail Alerts and for some people it’s going to be a real show stopper: In order to get the push notifications to the iPhone you need to forward a copy of all your incoming mail to the GMail Alerts mail server. This means that you not only have to trust Ed and his team not to store and read your e-mail but also that they have secured their mailserver adequately. This approach is slightly preferable to other methods which require storing your GMail password on the third party servers. I’ve certainly spent some time trying to figure out a way to get the GMail servers to “ping” the GMail Alerts service without forwarding the contents of the message but haven’t thought of a way to do it without running your own mailserver. It’s a funny situation really as most people wouldn’t think twice about forwarding copies of their mail to a mobile network’s BlackBerry BIS server but because this service is run by a small team there is instantly some concern over privacy. Personally I believe that if Ed or his team were caught reading your e-mail after setting up a service like this it would be made public and they’d find it very hard to continue to make a living in this industry.

Despite this uncomfortable security situation the service works a treat and has become an invaluable part of my iPhone and for the $3 per month it costs me ($1 per account) it’s great value for money. If Ed and his team can do something to alleviate the security concerns then I reckon this app will be a storming success despite the presence of an official solution.

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