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The importance of mobile e-mail found no better example than the events of last Nov. 7. Vice President Al Gore was on his way to his election headquarters to concede the election when he received an e-mail on his SkyTel pager telling him that George W. Bush's lead in Florida had dwindled to almost nothing.
The rest is history.
Surveys underscore the importance of receiving e-mail on the road. The No. 1 thing road warriors like Gore want to do is read e-mail when they're away from the office. And with the number of new services and devices on the market, that's getting a lot easier to do.
Mobile e-mail access to corporate, POP3 and IMAP4 e-mail servers is showing up on two-way paging devices, wirelessly enabled PDAs from Palm and Handspring, wirelessly enabled Pocket PCs, and a bunch of new Internet-accessing wireless phones.
Wireless e-mail offers its own peculiar difficulties, mostly because of the devices' small screens and challenging keyboards. Unless you use a wireless modem with your laptop computer, the experience will never be the same as with a desktop PC.
Of course, even that option is becoming more widespread, thanks to Metricom's high-speed wireless packet-data radiomodem, for use on its expanding network, and to PC Card-size CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data) radiomodems available through some cellular carriers.
So what's available now?
The recognized leader in wireless e-mail is the small Canadian company Research in Motion, which has several "smart pagers" that provide always-on connectivity to e-mail via the Cingular Interactive (previously BellSouth Wireless Data) network and Motient's network, both of which are digital packet-data networks. All of RIM's devices, which the company calls "wireless handhelds," are small computers with an Intel 386 processor, a full QWERTY keyboard, and built-in personal information manager applications like a calendar, to-do list and contacts.
There are two main RIM devices: a small-screen model (the 850 for the Cingular network and the 950 for Motient's network) and a larger-screen model (the 857 for BellSouth and 957 for Motient). The 850/950 looks similar to a regular pager but features a full keyboard. The new 857/957 has the same keyboard but is about the same size as a Palm PDA to make room for a large screen.
Cingular is using the devices for its MyBiz wireless Internet portfolio of services for enterprises.
The RIM devices typically are priced at $359-$399 for the 850/950 and $499 for the 857/957, with monthly service packages about $60 for unlimited usage.
RIM devices with Motient service also are available through wireless application service provider (ASP) GoAmerica, carrier SkyTel and Compaq.
Through the 957, Motient recently started offering an eLink "fortified with Yahoo!" service that bundles the device with Yahoo e-mail and Internet services. It includes Yahoo's instant messaging function for communicating with those on a buddy list.
America Online also likes the RIM devices and has begun offering them under the AOL Mobile Communicator name. AOL pushes its subscribers' e-mail to the devices, from which subscribers can also access AOL instant messaging. Available only through AOL, the device costs $329.95. Monthly service is $19.95.
AOL e-mail is also accessible through microbrowser-equipped wireless phones operating on the Sprint PCS and AT & T wireless networks. Sprint adds AOL instant messenger with its Wireless Web phones.
For its part, Motorola offers the keyboard-equipped P935 two-way paging device, usually retailed for about $300. It accesses corporate e-mail, but only if your company IT department has installed Motorola's V-Client software on its e-mail server. The software pushes incoming e-mail to the device. It's sold direct to business by most major paging carriers and through select retail stores.
Sometime in the first half this year, Motorola plans to offer software that users can load onto the P935 to pull e-mail from a POP3 or IMAP 4 account. The company will also incorporate the software in future T-900 two-way pagers, which are widely available in retail stores for as little as $99 after paging carrier rebates.
Traditional paging carriers see two-way messaging and e-mail as their future and are starting to offer it in their networks. "We take the e-mail that's trapped on your desktop and put it in your pocket," said N. Ross Buckenham, president of WebLink Wireless, which has partnered with Yahoo to provide two-way messaging and instant messaging with Motorola's T900.
Somewhat on a par with the RIM devices in functionality and price are the new PDAs and Pocket PCs with wireless access.
Palm's Palm VII remains the only PDA with a wireless capability offered as a standard feature. It uses Cingular's packet-data network. But there are an increasing number of add-on modems for Palm OS devices. For example, wireless ASP OmniSky has been offering wireless e-mail and Internet browsing with a Palm V since last spring. The service requires the use of a CDPD radiomodem sled that attaches to the Palm V.
OmniSky recently started offering the same service for the Handspring Visor, as well as for the Hewlett-Packard Jornada Pocket PC. OmniSky is also in beta tests with the popular Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC.
OmniSky's service provides e-mail access to POP3 ISP mail and America Online accounts and to corporate intranet e-mail servers that allow e-mail to be forwarded outside the firewall. The same is true for the Palm VII.
OmniSky's monthly service fee runs $39.95. The Palm V, Handspring Visor, Jornada and iPAQ devices are extra. OmniSky and the devices are sold through many retail outlets.
Many analysts believe Americans, at least, will continue to use two wireless devices for communications for several more years: one for messaging functions and one for voice. But new wireless phones are trying to bridge the gap.
Major wireless voice carriers such as AT & T Wireless, Sprint PCS, Verizon, Voicestream and Cingular are now offering phones capable of sending and receiving e-mail.
More such phones are on the way. Kyocera Wireless, for example, plans first-quarter shipments of a handset that wireless e-mail users might find attractive.
The QCP 6035 CDMA trimode smartphone uses the Palm operating system and ships with Qualcomm's Eudora e-mail application, which lets users retrieve corporate or personal POP3 e-mail. Optional third-party software will also let users IMAP e-mail servers.
The 7.34-ounce 6035, expected to be priced by carriers at $499 to $549, also features HTML and WAP browsers.
Motorola has targeted first-quarter availability of a clamshell-styled GSM wireless phone that looks like a two-way pager equipped with QWERTY keyboard. The Accompli 009 5.6-ounce triband supports access to POP3 e-mail servers. It also features built-in PIM applications.