Catching E Mail On The Fly

New PocketMail devices allow you to pick up messages from any telephone

I depend on E-mail to run my life. As a result, I'm constantly on the prowl for new technology to keep me in touch when I'm away from the office. I never would have suspected my search would lead me to a throwback to the dawn of the portable computer era, a service called PocketMail. With it, I can fetch mail from any telephone.

Veteran road warriors will remember the acoustic couplers that connected early mobile computers to the phone system. The couplers were bulky and cranky devices that bleeped modem tones into a telephone handset. But they worked everywhere, even with the pay phones and office digital phone systems that are incompatible with today's laptop modems.

An updated acoustic coupler from startup PocketScience is built into a unit about 6 inches long, 3 1/2 in. deep, and 3/4 in. thick. The first PocketMail product, the JVC Portable E-Mail Device (about $100, plus $9.95 a month for mail service), should be available in the U.S. in mid-October; the $129 Sharp Electronics TelMail, which adds an address book and calendar to E-mail, ships in November.

Using either model to exchange mail is simple. You dial the PocketMail server's toll-free number, press a button, and place the phone against a receptacle underneath the base of the PocketMail device. With a series of boops and bleeps, the unit sends messages and retrieves mail waiting on the server. The coupler adjusts to handle a variety of handsets. In my tests, only my Motorola MicroTac didn't work.

In this, its first incarnation, PocketMail ( has a lot of drawbacks. The Sharp and JVC displays are readable but small. Building an address list and entering messages using the tiny keyboard is tedious.

A bigger drawback is that you can communicate only with PocketMail's servers, which means mail has to be sent to an address at If you usually get your mail through an Internet service provider, PocketMail can collect your messages from other accounts. But if you get mail on a corporate system behind a fire wall, you will have to forward your messages to the PocketMail account. Most mail systems can be set up to do this automatically.

PocketMail is a work in progress. Transmissions are slow, equivalent to about a 2,400-bit-per-second modem in my tests. Memory is a scanty 128 kilobytes, so individual messages are limited to 4 Kb, and you can't read any attachments to the E-mail you get. I also found the controls on both the JVC and Sharp versions awkward.

Nonetheless, this is a promising technology. I would like to see PocketMail capabilities added to other devices. I think 3Com's PalmPilot with PocketScience technology would be easier to use than the dedicated PocketMail devices that I tried. Including PocketMail in handheld computers based on Windows CE would increase the usefulness of the devices and give PocketMail better E-mail software. Even a standard laptop with PocketMail is an intriguing possibility.

Another appealing idea is for corporations to run their own PocketMail servers. This would allow mobile workers direct access to their corporate mail accounts without the hassles of forwarding.

Getting mail on the go is increasingly a business necessity. Even in its present, flawed incarnation, PocketMail is a useful tool for someone who needs to read mail--especially short messages--anytime, anywhere. And the technology has the potential to get a lot better.

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