Close To Perfect Pocket E Mail
Faithful readers know that I have long been on a quest for the perfect mobile E-mail reader. It would be wireless, small, and able to send and receive mail easily and comfortably. Perfection remains elusive, but it's getting closer, courtesy of a Waterloo (Ont.) startup called Research in Motion (www.rim.net).
The $359 RIM Inter@ctive Pager 950 is a five-ounce unit small enough to be worn comfortably on a belt or slipped into a pocket or purse. It has a readable six-line display and a tiny but cleverly designed keyboard that lets you use your thumbs. I wouldn't write a novel with it, but after trying several versions on trips and around town, I found the pager surprisingly handy for keeping up with urgent mail and dashing off short messages. Its nearest rival, Motorola's PageWriter 2000, is much bulkier, with a poorly laid-out keyboard and other factors that make it harder to use despite being bigger.
ACTION-PACKED. The RIM is an interesting piece of hardware. But a lot of its appeal lies in the varied and growing services it offers. It operates on a BellSouth Wireless Data network or the Cantel AT&T network in Canada. BellSouth (www.bellsouthwd.com) offers basic service--E-mail and two-way paging--starting at $24.95 a month.
GoAmerica Communications (www.goamerica.com) adds Web browsing at prices ranging from $9.95 a month for 25,000 bytes--maybe 100 short E-mail messages--to $59.95 for unlimited service. The six-line display won't do for most Web pages, but GoAmerica lets you browse specially formatted pages that offer news, weather, market data, and travel information.
Other vendors' versions of the pager provide more specialized services. Mobeo (www.mobeo.com) lets you type in codes for a variety of financial instruments and comes back in a minute or so with real-time price quotes. You can also build a list of stock issues and then get a quote just by clicking on an item. Mobeo's service starts at $59.95 a month. Discount broker Muriel Siebert & Co. even allows wireless trading over a RIM pager.
Wynd Communications (www.wynd.com), a company that nearly went under trying to provide conventional wireless E-mail over the same BellSouth network, has tuned the RIM pager to provide mobile communications to the deaf and others who can't use a telephone. Wynd links a pager to a teletypewriter (TTY) for the deaf or provides text-to-speech service to a regular phone, in addition to regular E-mail. Its service starts at $24.95 a month, plus 35 cents per TTY or text-to-voice message.
Probably the approach with the most appeal to the typical mobile executive is RIM's own BlackBerry service. One of the hassles of most wireless mail systems is that you must either have correspondents send mail to a special address, such as email@example.com, or you must arrange to have mail forwarded from your regular account. For users of Microsoft Exchange mail, BlackBerry is integrated into the mail server, which takes the messages sent to your regular address, reformats them for the small display, and forwards them. All traffic between the pager and server is encrypted for security.
One feature makes BlackBerry particularly useful: You can set up rules that control what messages are forwarded, so you receive only the important ones, with the junk left behind. For example, I had only messages on which I was the primary addressee sent to the pager. That eliminated all of my mailing-list traffic while ensuring that the most important mail--messages that required my action--got through.
SUBURBAN STATIC. The versatile BlackBerry pager also lets you synchronize your desktop address book and calendar with the pager, which gives it much of the functionality of a Palm. A BlackBerry pager with a sync cradle costs $399, plus $39.99 a month for unlimited service.
The RIM Inter@ctive Pager isn't quite my ideal E-mail companion. Although wireless communications are generally good in big metropolitan areas, they can get sketchy in the outer suburbs. Battery life is a concern, too, with the single AA cell likely to need replacement within a couple weeks of heavy use. But this is the first wireless E-mail device that I've found to be practical enough that I really want to carry it around.
The RIM may get a run for its money from 3Com Corp.'s forthcoming Palm VII, which offers similar wireless Web-browsing services and even operates over the same network. But for now, particularly if you are a Microsoft Exchange user, the BlackBerry version of the RIM Inter@ctive Pager is the hottest wireless game around.