A Wireless World: Not Yet

Radio browsers and two-way pagers are handy--and often difficult to use

Like a lot of people these days, I depend on electronic communications--E-mail and voice mail--to do my job. And with a crowded itinerary of conferences and company visits, staying in touch is complicated by the fact that I'm away from my office a good deal of the time.

Fortunately, my job also gives me the chance to road test early versions of the array of new products directed at people just like me. I recently tried out four wireless products. One was an improbable combination of a cell phone, E-mail reader, and limited Web browser. The others were a pair of interesting two-way pagers and a radio modem that brings wireless service to laptops and many handheld computers.

The PocketNet phone from AT&T Wireless Services (www.attws.com) is the most ambitious, but the most problematic, of the products. It's a $300 phone that can retrieve stock quotes, weather forecasts, sports scores, flight schedules, and other information. The phone is free if you sign up for basic service, and the other features cost $30 a month. My favorite feature: If I use the optional $70 Puma IntelliSync software to periodically transfer data from my computer to the AT&T network, the PocketNet phone can automatically retrieve my personal phone directory information and daily calendar.

E-mail is a challenge, though. Reading mail on a tiny 16-character, four-line screen is awkward in the extreme, and creating a message more complicated than "yes" or "no" using a telephone dial pad is, frankly, painful. I can't imagine being hungry enough for E-mail to make this worth the trouble.

Another problem is that the PocketNet, though it uses digital technology, shares the analog cellular network with voice calls. At busy times of day, such as afternoon, I was often unable to get data service.

The combination of a laptop or handheld computer and a radio modem is a lot clunkier than PocketNet, but it's a lot more practical for my needs. I tried out WyndMail and WyndPower from Wynd Communications (www.wynd.com), using a $450 Megahertz AllPoints Wireless PC Card modem from 3Com and the RAM Mobile Data Network. Similar services are offered by RadioMail (www.radiomail.com) and DTS Wireless' Zap-It (www.dtswireless.com).

WyndMail, with service starting at $19.95 per month plus 49 cents for each kilobyte of messages over 50k, offers E-mail and Web browsing. The network's 9,600-bits-per-second top speed makes browsing tedious, though. WyndPower allows corporations to provide workers with the same services for about $10 per user per month. The big advantage is the ability to retrieve wireless mail from your regular corporate address--WyndMail requires a special address--and to get to information kept inside the corporate security system.

The service is more reliable than PocketNet, though network coverage can be spotty outside of cities, and radio communication is poor inside some buildings. The setup is easier, and often cheaper, than the alternative of dialing in using a cell phone and cellular-ready modem.

Paging is the most robust, and most available, of all wireless technologies, and the new two-way systems allow pagers to send back limited amounts of data. The $149 Motorola Tenor pager puts the new technology to good use. Someone can dial a toll-free number (or your regular number if you use call forwarding), hear your recorded greeting, and leave a message. Within a few minutes, the voice message is dispatched to your pager, and you can play it at will. The pager only holds about three minutes of recording, but the system automatically downloads new messages as space is freed up.

Service is currently offered by CONXSUS Communications in the Washington-Baltimore area and in central and southern Florida; and by PageNet in parts of Georgia, Texas, and California. Both companies plan to expand soon toward nationwide coverage. Service costs about $20 a month.

The new $25-a-month SkyWriter service from SkyTel is, like the PageNet phone, overly ambitious. It lets you exchange messages with other pagers or E-mail accounts. But I found entering information into the $322 AccessLink pager from Wireless Access even more painful than on the PocketNet phone: You select letters from a list at the bottom of a four-line screen. While useful for sending canned replies to E-mail or pages, writing a message or entering a new E-mail address is not something you'd want to do often.

Each of these wireless technologies has its uses, but even at best they remain niche products. It looks like I'll be waiting a while longer for the device that allows me to stay in touch as quickly and easily as with a phone or conventional modem, but without plugging in.

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