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How well does wireless e-mail work?


June 20, 2000
Web posted at: 8:39 a.m. EDT (1239 GMT)

(IDG) -- My constant companions for the past month have been a Motorola Inc. PageWriter 2000X and a Research In Motion Ltd. Blackberry 950, a pair of tiny, handheld, wireless, two-way e-mail devices. The PageWriter is hooked up to Skytel Communications Inc.'s nationwide Reflex 50 wireless paging system, while the 950 gets its data from GoAmerica Inc.'s repackaging of Atlanta-based Bell-South Corp.'s Mobitex network.

Both units let users receive pages in urban areas throughout the U.S., although paging and fax options with the service from Jackson, Miss.-based Skytel are much more robust than GoAmerica's numeric-only paging. Both systems let users send and receive Internet e-mail, and the Blackberry 950 includes a limited, text-only Web browser (no frames or Java, but 40-bit or 128-bit Secure Sockets Layer encryption works fine).


Powered by a single AA cell, the Blackberry 950 has a 1-by-2.5-cm screen displaying either six or eight lines of 25 to 32 LCD characters each on an unlit screen. The minimalist QWERTY keyboard is augmented by a wheel manipulated by your right thumb: Turn it to scroll text, or click it to select menu choices. A storage holster clips to your belt and protects the otherwise exposed keyboard and screen.

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The PageWriter has a clamshell design with a hard case that protects both a backlit 50-key, 5.75-by-9-cm keyboard and 4.25-by-6-cm screen. An infrared serial port connects to a cable through the battery charger cradle. The screen characters are smaller than those on the Blackberry but almost as readable. The PageWriter has 4.5MB of memory -- enough for other applications and even some games -- and a 68,000-class, 16-bit microprocessor. Instead of a thumbwheel, the PageWriter has a four-position switch that can be pushed to scroll up, down, left or right.

The tiny keyboards and screens of both machines were awkward but usable. Typing with my thumbs became almost automatic after a couple of weeks.

A significant drawback, however, is cost. Monthly service is much too expensive. Hackensack, N.J.-based GoAmerica charges a hefty $60 per month for unlimited paging; e-mail; download of a wide variety of news, sports, financial and entertainment news services; and Web browsing.

Other plans are available from Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion and Princeton, N.J.-based RCN Corp. Skytel charges by the character; monthly bills could exceed hundreds of dollars.

But instant e-mail to and from either device is useful and almost addictive, particularly when others in the workgroup or family are similarly equipped. Wireless Application Protocol-enabled cell phones or Palm VII wireless adaptations are also convenient, but these two-way pagers are lighter and smaller, and their tiny QWERTY keyboards are considerably better than a cell phone's numeric keyboard or Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palm Inc.'s Graffiti character recognition.

E-Mail on Steroids

Much as I enjoy modern, high-speed Internet access and rich media, I've found that plain old e-mail service (POEMS), with no attachments, hyperlinks or other fancy features can be very useful.

A new service aimed at PageWriter users (for details, visit ) shows just how handy e-mail can be when you have quick, wireless access. I can send an e-mail message with a command in it and access many different kinds of information quickly:

If I send STOCK IDGB to, I get a return e-mail with the stock price of IDG Books Worldwide.

FLIGHT AAL 630 gets me the current status of American Airlines Flight 630.

WEATHER 02116 provides a Boston-area weather report.

The principle is simple. Take an Internet e-mail server, add a simple application to parse the message and reformulate it into a database query, then get the answer and send it to the originating e-mail address. Although this service is directed specifically to PageWriter users, it seems to be platform-agnostic and device-independent. (Note: It works just fine from the office PC. -- Ed.)

Other Possibilities

This kind of usefulness could be greatly expanded. Consider Web-based appointment books. How difficult would it be to design a POEMS server that could receive the query "App 051000" and respond with the sender's appointments for May 10, 2000?

Then there are the Web-based, thin-client "rent-an-apps." in Boston, for example, provides credible (if not yet full-featured) Web-based time-and-billing services for a few dollars per month.

No one would want to use POEMS as a full-time interface. But the ability to access public or private databases from a light, handheld device wherever you happen to be is so useful that it just has to happen. If only those wireless service providers could get the monthly cost down.

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