(NOTE: This was written in October 1999)
Traveling executives looking to cut the cord on their email habit have lots of choices these days. I looked at three of the latest wireless email devices — the Palm VII, the Touchpoint phone with a built-in web browser from Sprint, and an updated two-way pager from Research in Motion. All three do more than wireless email of course — you can jot down notes, keep track of your schedules and even use the phone to make cellular phone calls, too. While each unit has its frustrations and problems, all three are improvements on the trio of devices I reviewed this past February 15, “Hold the Phone (Line).”
I’ve used one form of wireless email or another for over eight years, and you’ll want to consider the following issues:
— Can I get email on these devices with the same corporate email account that I use on my desktop? Most devices require some effort and some combination of software and services to do this.
— How much skill do I need to key in a typical reply message? None of the devices is as handy as a full-sized typewriter keyboard. You should try one out before buying to make sure you are comfortable with its controls and key layouts.
— Do these devices work indoors and in out-of-the-way places? All three work best outdoors and in major metro areas. The further from the center city and inside buildings you take them, the worse the radio reception gets. This is just physics.
— Is the price reasonable and predictable? All of the devices come with a wide array of monthly service plans and fees. Make sure you understand the pricing plan you need up front.
In the ideal world, each device would come with everything you need to extract email from your existing corporate account. However, we aren’t there yet. Each of the three devices comes with its own email account, separate from your existing corporate email account. If your corporate email system has message forwarding features, you can turn that on when you leave town and have your mail forwarded to your device.
But that isn’t always convenient or possible, and a series of web-based service providers offer ways around this by acting as email forwarders. They make copies of email in your existing corporate account and then send them to your wireless device (or indeed, any other email account). Two service providers are MonkeyMail.com and Visto.com.
With both you setup your existing email account information and tell it where you want your mail forwarded. MonkeyMail costs $5 pre month, and free for the first month. I wasn’t happy with the MonkeyMail service: once you start it there isn’t any way to stop it, which means if you get a lot of email it will quickly overwhelm the device. Visto has a better interface, more features, and the ability to filter messages based on subject or sender or other criteria, plus it is free.
I took all three devices with me on several business trips, as well as carried them all over town to determine coverage and battery life. I also connected them to a Windows NT desktop and tested their synchronization software and other utilities. Of the three, the Palm offers the most promise: it has the largest and most active developer community and the best software. However, to really be an effective Palm user you’ll need to learn its Graffiti language to compose messages.
Touchpoint phone with Wireless Web
Sprint PCS / Denso
Kansas City, Mo.
800 480 4727
Wireless service: Sprint PCS with service from Phone.com
Price: Various pricing plans for both voice and data, starting at $10/month and up plus price of phone
Keyboard/screen: 7 lines with 12-button phone keys with Tegic script
Batteries: rechargeable, last for up to two days
Available this fall
Sprint PCS has introduced its Wireless Web service, where you can browse some web sites using your cellular phone. A number of different phones are available for this service, which should be available by the time you read this, including phones from Motorola, Nokia, Qualcomm and others. I tested a phone from Denso called the Touchpoint. Any of these phones comes ready to read mail from Yahoo: you can setup a free account there and have it collect your corporate email. And if you don’t need to reply to your messages, you can forward or copy mail to Sprint’s short messaging feature (every Sprint phone can receive email at firstname.lastname@example.org). I wanted to use the phone to read my mail at Infinite Technologies’ MailAndNews.com site, but Infinitie was still working out the bugs with Sprint at press time.
Built into the phone is software from Tegic Communications Inc. called T9. Since you only have 12 buttons to key in any text, Tegic has developed a way to predict what you are going to type and help shortcut the process. While no substitute for a QWERTY keyboard, it does a credible job.
Blackberry Interactive pager
Research in Motion
Waterloo, Ontario Canada
Wireless service: BellSouth Wireless Data (850 model uses Ardis)
Price: $399 plus $40/mo for unlimited usage
Available: this fall
Keyboard/screen: full QWERTY keyboard but very small keys, screen has up to 8 line display
Battery: one AA lasts up to three days
The Blackberry has the best keyboard of the three, with a full typewriter layout of keys albeit only three inches wide. Given its size, I could type fairly easily and compose longer messages than on the other devices. It comes with relatively weak desktop synchronization software, since you can’t synchronize your emails yet between the device and your desktop. It also has the most confusing set of different models. There is one that works only with Microsoft Exchange servers, another with Internet email, and a third model runs over American Mobile Ardis wireless networks. This latter model has a $60/month usage plan and works with your existing email account, called eLink Agent (www.elinkmail.com). GoAmerica offers email access for varying fees as well as will sell you a reduced-price Blackberry (www.goamerica.net). Also, if you have an account with several ISPs including RCN and Espernet.com, they will configure a unit to work with your email.
Santa Clara, Calif.
Wireless service: BellSouth Wireless Data
Price: $499 plus various plans ($10 to $40/mo, depending on volume) plus $10 for activation fee
Keyboard/screen: Touch screen with Graffiti script, Palm screen 3.5 ” diagonal
Batteries: two ordinary AAA, last for two or more weeks
Available in NY since May and nationwide since October
The Palm VII has a variety of ways to read and respond to email. It comes with its own email software built-in, callled iMesenger. However, it doesn’t have as many features as I’d like, such as filtering, scheduled forwarding, and mass message deletes. For example, you have to login to the palm.net website in order to delete multiple messages at once. To obtain these features and also to read your existing email account you’ll need to make use of either Visto, Yahoo Mail or MonkeyMail services mentioned earlier. Another choice is to use ThinAirMail.com’s client software, which is free and my favorite of the current alternatives for wireless email.
No matter which service or software you use, you are stuck with using Graffiti to compose messages. It will take some time to learn this language, but is easier than keying than responses on the Touchpoint phone’s keypad.
Under the Basic Plan, a user pays $9.99 per month for
approximately 80 transactions (50 kilobytes). Typical monthly
usage under this plan might include a combination of 30
messages, 20 stock quotes, 10 sports scores, 10 traffic
reports and 10 weather updates. Under the Expanded Plan,
more frequent users pay $24.99 per month for approximately
240 transactions, or three times the number of transactions as
under the Basic Plan (150 kilobytes).
Volume Plan at $39.99, which covers twice the usage of the
Expanded Plan, or approximately 480 transactions (300
kilobytes). Sample monthly usage under this plan might look
like 180 messages, 120 stock quotes, 60 sports scores, 60
traffic reports and 60 weather updates. Under a special
promotion, Palm VII users who sign up for the Palm.Net service
under the Volume Plan before January 4, 2000 will receive
approximately 1,600 transactions per month (1,000 kilobytes)
for the first six months of service.
typical email: email@example.com
Also offers web-based email which can collect mail from your POP mail account
Can’t reconcile emails with your desktop but can synch calendars.
RCN and espernet.com are offering the units to their subscribers
Confused, though: contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Under a special purchase promotion that
also is in effect until December 31, subscribers can buy a RIM
Inter@ctive Pager 950 for $249 with a minimum two-year service plan of
at least $29.95 a month or for $299 with a minimum one-year service plan
of at least $29.95 a month.
American Mobile also offers another plan for $60/month that works with Ardis and uses your existing email account, called eLink Agent (www.elinkmail.com)