Sproqit plans to give RIM's BlackBerry and other mobile email services a run for their money, with a recently launched service that operates in a radically different way to the others. The company has promised a full enterprise system but so far has what we tested: the "Personal Edition".
What is it?Sproqit offers remote email, calendar and contacts - but it is not a remote "push" email service like BlackBerry and the others. Instead, it turns your handheld into a window on to your desktop. From wherever you are, you access programs on that desktop.
Sproqit consists of a Desktop Agent that sits on the PC, and a Companion that runs on the handheld device. The Agent uses plug-in modules to access desktop applications. The Companion connects to the Agent over the Internet to use those applications remotely.
The connection is set up by a broker service, which provides a stationary "visible" IP address for the handheld to call. It would otherwise have trouble finding a desktop which (one would hope) is hidden behind NAT or a firewall. For the Personal Edition, the broker is run by Sproqit.
Once the link is set up, the broker takes no further part in the communications: the Agent passes data directly across the Internet (encrypted with SSL) to the Companion. The Companion interprets the information and formats it to be viewed on the handheld.
Sproqit plans to offer a full Enterprise edition, in which the broker will run on a corporate Sproqit server on the user company's network. Agents will then be able to interface to corporate application servers, rather than running on the desktop (see the lower diagram on Sproqit's Future Applications page). A Workgroup edition, with management controls is due in the first quarter of 2005.
The company also holds out the prospect of plug-ins for enterprise applications and other programs on the desktop. For now, however, Sproqit is available as a single-user application, with PIM access and the ability to browse the files on the PC. This in itself should be of great interest to small businesses and companies that do not run their own Exchange server.
Does it work?
I reviewed Sproqit's Personal Edition, running on a palmOne Treo 600 smartphone. It also runs on Microsoft Windows Mobile phones. The Desktop Agent was installed on a very sub-average (600MHz Dell) PC running Windows 2000.
To cut to the chase, the software worked exactly as described and proved useful and powerful.
The software downloaded easily from Sproqit's site, and installed smoothly, with the Companion installed on the phone at the next synch. The PC had Outlook as an email client, connecting by POP3/SMTP to an ISP account. Slightly un-intuitively, I was told to choose the Exchange/MAPI option, rather than the POP3 option: the Plug-in was then connected to the Outlook client on my desktop.
The Sproqit Desktop Agent sits in the system tray. It gives a status message (whether a Companion is connected or not) and allows you to disconnect any Companion that is connected. It also has clear settings, both for the connection itself, and for a list of plugins. At the moment, that list includes a Desktop viewer, and plug-ins for the (Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Tasks and Notes) components of Outlook.
These settings include the ability to push email to the handheld for offline viewing, and choices for issues such as how many days' appointments you want loaded to it. It lets you add your own signature when you tire of the one it suggests: "Sent remotely using Sproqit Companion". I left the Sproqit sig there, to show off.
Sproqit on the move
I launched Sproqit on the Treo by tapping the icon on the Main page. An icon on the top bar shows the connection status and connects when asked. A pull down menu switches between the main PIM functions.
Something like Sproqit is no good unless it is well implemented on the client. The Companion has to represent the Outlook client within the limitations of a given mobile device. I found it did so very well on the Treo; I happily used Sproqit's PIM functions instead of the native Palm ones. In fact, I pretty soon stopped bothering to synch the Treo, relying on the real-time versions.
For the individual user, on POP3/SMTP, Sproqit has a very big benefit - you only get one copy of an email, but you see it on both devices. Other mobile email systems I have tried tend to rely on the mobile device downloading mails from the same ISP server - so you either get mail divided between two devices, or you get two full sets of emails. You delete and respond to a set of messages on the road, and then when you return to the home-office they're all in your PC's in-tray.
With Sproqit, if you delete a message on the road, it's deleted at home, something I haven't experienced since my days of logging into a corporate Exchange server.
Replying to, and forwarding messages are both easy to do - the Mail and Contacts are linked, so picking an email address to send to is easy. Emails can be filed in Outlook folders. You can phonel contacts from the Sproqit Contacts list.
More advanced jobs you would do on a desktop can be tricky, as they are with most mobile solutions. For instance, there's no easy equivalent for dragging a mail to the Calendar to set up an appointment, and no way to instantly add an email sender to your Contacts database. It's not easy to have the equivalent of a right-click or a drag-and-drop on a tiny screen.some features may vary between handsets. For instance, on the Palm platform it is not possible to adjust the column widths in Sproqit's mail screens, while it is possible on Windows Mobile. A minor irritation, this meant I could not see the full date an email arrived, for example.
Handling attachments is a powerful feature, and one which could solve one of the biggest problems faced by road warriors - when someone needs a file that you left on the PC at the office. Sproqit allows you to browse your desktop, find files, and add them as attachments to a message. They can be as big as you like, because they don't actually come via the handheld device at all - they are sent by the Desktop Agent over the PC's wired connection.
Sitting in a meeting in London, I sent a long document as a Word attachment, in no more time than it would have taken on the PC at home. The Sproqit Companion also let me view that attachment with a functional Word viewer.
The system is surprisingly fast. New emails arrived at the device very promptly, as I could see when I had it turned on in the office. The Treo bleeped only about two seconds after Outlook's new message alert sounded on the PC.
Downsides? Costs, security speed
Some actions can be slow, as the smartphone screen needs to refresh with information from the PC. Scrolling through my (admittedly constipated) inbox had a noticeable lag and opening a directory for the first time was slow too. However, some of these actions have no equivalent in other mobile email solutions. "Slow" is way better than "impossible".
The biggest drawback for a user in my position is the cost. The monthly subscription for use of the Sproqit broker is only $8.95 a month, but the data costs can be high. In three days of intensive tyre-kicking, I racked up 6.5 Mbyte of data, which would put me on target for a £100 monthly data habit, a big jump from my usual sparing use of data.
Long term, the costs can be cut by changing tariff. The data needs would be lower in "real" use, where I would only connect when actually on the road, and stop emailing myself all the time. It is also possible to view and compose emails offline before "blinking" with Sproqit.
The security worries are real too. Although the link is encrypted, anything that opens a channel to the desktop from a pocket device is a concern. Sproqit suggests using a password on the mobile device. However, I expect many users will fail to do this, or use a weak password, thus ensuring that anyone who steals the device will have access to everything on their PC - or the LAN it is connected to - until the Agent is switched off.
Sproqit can be put in without any involvement by IT staff - something the company cites as a benefit. but which might cause worries to IT managers. Since it uses the same port (443) as secure web browsing, anyone who can browse the web can use Sproqit, firewall or no.
Watch this space
If you are an IT manager, this is a product you should watch very closely. The future enterprise version sounds promising, and the current version is a useful solution for trusted individuals in your company that need access to their PCs remotely.
Adventurous IT managers may want to look at using Sproqit's software development kit to create their own plug-ins for applications. Cautious ones should be aware that their users may already be running Sproqit without their knowledge, and opening up channels through the firewall onto their desktops, as well as boosting corporate mobile bills.
IT managers who do not trust their users to put a strong password on their mobile device will want to block Sproqit. Blocking port 443 is not an option, since it would disable secure web browsing, and Sproqit advises it would be difficult to block connections to the broker as it uses an outgoing connection.
Sproqit suggests concerned IT managers should lock down desktops against unauthorised software, and promises that the Workgroup edition will give IT managers more control.
Sproqit's Personal Edition is a taster for a promising enterprise product and a very useful tool for individuals. Consider it for individuals that mail a lot of attachments and need remote desktop access from their handheld.