Evaluating the new wireless web applications (2000)

Back in 2000, I got rid of using my laptop and made do with borrowed computers and the local Kinkos. Here is a column that I wrote about that experience and the latest wireless technologies that were available.

I am not completely without technology when I travel, however: for the past year or so I have been using a Sprint PCS phone with its wireless web capabilities. Lately this has become more useful with several new applications available on the phone coupled with an offer of six months’ free data usage by Sprint. (www.sprintpcs.com) Let’s see what you can do with your phone besides make voice calls.

I tested several services, all of which (with one exception) are freely available once you register. The trick with most of these services is to setup an account with one of the application providers on your existing Internet-connected PC, and then have your phone nearby so you can follow on your PC the instructions to setup what you need on the phone. It isn’t very simple, to be sure, and sometimes I had to go through the entire sequence of steps more than once.

Most of these services allow you to access your email from your phone – either your existing POP Internet mail server or a special email account that is associated with the service provider. Some had additional features, such as access to your appointment calendar or address book, both of which you would need to enter the data from your PC’s browser if you want to retain your sanity. And a few applications had some other nifty features that I’ll get to in a moment.

After you set up your application, you’ll want to make a bookmark on the phone’s menu system so you can easily bring it up. One of the things you quickly learn with these phones is that every keystroke is precious and time-consuming, so the fewer keys to get to your applications, the better. On my Denso Touchpoint phone, this is found under the Help menu option – not as obvious as I’d like. And some of the applications have so many menu branches that it will drive you nuts pressing the buttons and scrolling around on the tiny screens available on most phones. If this is an issue, you might consider that many of these service offerings are also available on Palm VIIs or Palms with wireless Internet connections, but I haven’t gotten around to trying these out.

This is just a small sampling of service offerings available. There are probably dozens more, and hundreds to come.

  • Infinite Technologies. This is still the one service I use the most, including their web-based email system when I am traveling and using a borrowed machine. It is just for downloading your existing email account. Since you work directly with your own POP server, you can delete messages from the phone directly, unlike some of the other services that just collect the email and leave copies. The phone-based screens aren’t too cluttered, and sometimes their service is down but the messages are maddening obscure. On Infinite’s web site are great instructions on how to setup the service.
  • Yodlee. This is a very extensive web-based service that can connect to hundreds of various web sites, including financial, news, and entertainment. The implementation on the phone is less satisfying, mainly because the tiny screens make it hard to scroll through more than miniscule collections of information. And while their email service is extensive, I had trouble reading one of my POP providers, in addition to reading folders in My Yahoo email. The setup instructions are very helpful, almost to the fault of being too detailed. I’m not sure I would want to trust Yodlee to automatically login to my bank accounts and other financial data, though.
  • Yahoo Mobile. My Yahoo is the one personalized portal that I use the most on the home PC: it contains a page that everyone in the family uses to check the weather, find directions, and lookup the latest movie times. Yahoo already comes as one of the menu choices for the Sprint PCS phones, but you’ll need to bookmark it if you want to do an autologin to your own personalized My Yahoo page and collect your Yahoo email. From the phone you can access most of My Yahoo’s services, such as stocks, sports scores, weather, and so forth. And like MSN Mobile, you can set up a number of alerts to notify you when your stock price drops or when the weather changes. There is a bug in the address book that prevents dialing of phone numbers from your entry on the first try.
  • Visto.com. Visto, like Yahoo and Yodlee, has the ability to collect external POP email and also to synchronize its email with your own desktop (something I didn’t test). It has the same address book bug like Yahoo that prevents dialing of phone numbers on the first try.
  • Mobile MSN. Microsoft has beefed up its MSN service and it now comes close to My Yahoo in terms of customized features and information displays. Of course, you’ll need a Hotmail account to use the email features, and while you are at you might as well sign up for Microsoft Passport too. You can setup customized notification services, such as for when your stock price changes or when you receive email, although they are not very simple to setup. Microsoft is working on better documentation
  • MyDocsOnlin e. MyDocsOnline is one of the first services to support web folders, meaning that you can browse a directory on the web of your files in the same fashion as you would browse the files on your own hard disk. You can set up this service to send files from a common web-based storage area to others via email, using commands on your phone. You first have to upload the files via your PC and once they are in your storage area you can’t view their contents via the phone. Still, for users who do lots of traveling and can’t take all their files with them, this could be handy.
  • eFax Wireless. The only fee-based service here, eFax has long been one of my favorite ways to receive faxes in my email account. Now you can use your phone as a fax router and direct your inbound faxes to a real fax machine to view them, perhaps while you are standing nearby for delivery of sensitive documents. Fax forwarding requires a paid account, while notification of faxes is accomplished on the free accounts.

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