In recent weeks I've noticed an interesting human twist to e-mail. People send it to you and assume you received it. If you don't respond quickly, they assume you are ignoring them. Using the phone to confirm receipt of an important message is somehow off the radar screen for many people.
In some cases, e-mail simply doesn't arrive. It could be due to a typo in the address or some other mysterious Internet glitch. In other cases, you might be traveling or away from a computer. Problem is, if your livelihood depends on e-mail communication, failure to receive a message in a timely manner can actually cost you money.
It's no wonder there's a major interest in wireless e-mail. Because trying to make computing devices work over phone lines is a big hassle while traveling, the lure of a wireless connection is compelling. But, as with all technology, wireless is not perfect. The key questions are: What does it cost and does it really work? The short answers are: a lot and sort of.
We recently experimented with two of the most popular wireless Internet devices, the Palm VII Connected Organizer ($449) from 3Com and Research in Motion's (RIM) 850 Wireless Handheld device ($399) using service from Go America. Both systems work in most major U.S. urban areas and both are pricey for casual use.
The Palm VII works on Palm.net, which covers 260 U.S. metro areas on a data network operated by Bell South. Palm has no unlimited usage plan, but is currently offering a promotional 1000 kB for $39.99 a month. That covers the needs for most users, but after your first six months of service it converts to the skimpy standard plan of only 300 kB a month. You pay extra for overage and the bill can add up very fast, easily exceeding $100 a month for heavy users.
It was not the high service cost, however, that soured us on the Palm VII. But it was the system's very limited e-mail and Web browsing capability. The Palm's iMessenger e-mail application offers no way to access an existing POP3 account. Therefore, messages to your regular e-mail address must be forwarded to your Palm.net address.
There is a free third-party POP3 e-mail client for the Palm VII called ThinAirMail. Though it worked, we found the annoying tag embedded in all outgoing messages objectionable. It reads: "Sent from a Palm VII via ThinAirMail www.thinairapps.com."
As to Web access, we found Palm's Web clipping technique hopelessly slow. So slow, we quit using it when the novelty wore off, which was about one day. The connection speed of only about 8 kbps - a limitation of the Bell South network - just didn't cut it for us.
The RIM 850, on the other hand, is a totally different experience. It uses the ARDIS wireless network, which has slightly broader coverage, and a faster speed of 19.2 kbps in many areas. This offers a significant speed bump when accessing Go.Web, Go America's competition to Palm's Web clipping concept. With Go.Web's reformatted Web pages, we could actually read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal with relative ease.
But the killer app for the RIM 850 is e-mail. It's hard to believe, but the QWERTY keyboard on this four-ounce pager-size device is easy to use. Writing e-mail with two large thumbs on the 850's keyboard is far more convenient for me than learning the handwriting tricks needed to compose documents on the Palm.
Best yet, Go America's RIM 850 works with a new service called eLink Agent from American Mobile Satellite Corp. This allows you to integrate your existing POP3 Internet mailbox with the handheld device. You can automatically retrieve mail from your account and use your existing e-mail address to send and retrieve mail from the RIM device. Other wireless services force you to use their own assigned e-mail address on the portable device.
Though several providers resell the RIM 850 service, Go America discounts the pager to $299 with a one-year service commitment and bundles Go.Web service with the eLink Agent service. The price is $59.95 a month for unlimited usage, or $9.95 a month for the first 25 kB. After that the price is 30 cents per kB. The RIM 850 is powered by a single AA battery and we got several days of use running it 24 hours a day.
If you can justify the cost of wireless e-mail, we found the RIM device with Go America service the best by a mile. It doesn't work everywhere, but it does the job well when you're in range of a radio signal. The RIM pager is available in several configurations, including the Blackberry, a version that accesses corporate e-mail through Microsoft Exchange.