Will radio rescue the personal digital assistant? Since Apple's Newton and its ilk hit the market last year, potential buyers have been trying to figure out just what their use might be. For all too many, the answer has been: not much. Apple's improved MessagePad 110 has failed to find a mass market since its introduction in March, AT&T's Eo bombed, and BellSouth has delayed introduction of Simon to rethink the product.
The problem with the Newton is fundamental: Its use as an electronic notepad, calendar, and phone book is crippled because it's hard to get information into it. The thrill of watching a machine translate your handwriting quickly turns to frustration with its slowness and errors. And while Newton handles fax and e-mail, first you have to find a phone line. It offers truly mobile communications only as a sort of superpager, using a receive-only radio unit from BellSouth's MobileComm.
Motorola's Envoy, due out this summer, could save the PDA by redefining it as a communications device--or as Motorola calls it, a personal wireless communicator. Priced at about $1,500, the Envoy costs some three times as much as a Newton. But it can connect either over phone lines or by radio in a 1.7-pound package that's about 25% bigger than a Newton.
The heart of the Envoy is General Magic's Magic Cap operating software and Telescript communications program--software likely to turn up on a variety of equipment. Instead of Newton's handwriting recognition, Magic Cap uses a miniature on-screen "keyboard" that you operate by tapping the "keys" with a stylus. I found it much easier to use than either handwriting or the Newton's much tinier keyboard.
Telescript drives Envoy's most impressive features. Motorola is bundling the machine with the services that can keep you in touch with the office and the world. For example, the built-in electronic-mail software and radio modem are designed to work with Radiomail's wireless e-mail services, available in major metropolitan areas. Other software lets you log into America Online or CompuServe and get travel information from Official Airline Guide's FlightLine service.
Potentially the most interesting on-line service will be AT&T's PersonaLink, a new "smart" network being built to work with Telescript. The service, which AT&T says will be available when Envoy is rolled out, will let you issue a set of orders to the network. Intelligent programs, called "agents," will then do your bidding, from arranging for flower deliveries to shooting closing prices on your stock portfolio into your Envoy each afternoon. If all works, you'll be able to fulfill the old dream of carrying much of your office in a small briefcase or a large pocket.
SLOWPOKES. As always, that's a big if. These fancy new services now exist mainly on paper. And while wireless communications free users from the tyranny of finding and connecting to a phone line, radio systems have serious flaws of their own: The speed is barely a third that of a good telephone connection, while the cost is several times higher. And both battery life and internal interference are major challenges for devices as small as PDAs.
Even if the Envoy falls short of Motorola's hopes, its technology will likely prove a boon to executives on the run. Current radio modems made by Motorola and Ericsson GE Mobile Communications are the size of a small brick and weigh about a pound. Both Motorola and Ericsson have developed credit-card-size models that could make laptop computers and other PDAs truly mobile communicators. Existing services allow such a device to connect with corporate e-mail, commercial systems such as MCImail, and Internet mail.
General Magic, whose owners include Apple, AT&T, Motorola, and Sony, will make Magic Cap and Telescript available on a variety of computers--portable and deskbound. That could give computer users communications options that they can only dream about today.