Wireless Gets Easier And Faster

You can fetch mail and browse Web sites with these sleek little handhelds

Advocates of wireless communications claim that someday you'll be able to get all the information you need, wherever you are, whenever you want it. My experience suggests that day is still far away. But wireless data services are getting a lot better, even in North America, which lags behind Europe and Asia.

Two very different products prove that wireless is starting to deliver on its promise. A new version of the BlackBerry e-mail pager, from Research in Motion in Waterloo, Ont., offers easy access to corporate e-mail. And OmniSky, for the Palm V, is the most versatile wireless device I have tried.

I have been addicted to the BlackBerry (www.blackberry.net) service ever since it launched about a year ago; a number of major corporations, including Intel, Dell, and Merrill Lynch use it to communicate with executives absent from their desks. BlackBerry forwards messages, via Microsoft Exchange mail, to a two-way pager, where you can read and respond to them. The new BlackBerry 2.0 service combines some modest revisions in the software with dramatic improvements in the hardware.

Blackberry's new $499 RIM 957 pager is a device about the size and weight of a Palm III. It is functionally identical to the original RIM 950 pager (which is still available for $399). But the new model can display a 16- or 20-line message, depending on type size. That's a tremendous improvement over the old model's six- or eight-line display, since many complete messages can now be read on a single screen. Happily, features that made the 950 so useful are unchanged. A tiny but surprisingly efficient keyboard lets you type with your thumbs, and a combination scroll wheel/single-button controls the device.

The new pager works only with corporate mail systems using Exchange--but fetching corporate mail is the hardest thing for any wireless system to do. The biggest software improvement allows you to delete mail from the server as well as the handheld, so that you don't have to read the same message twice.

FIRST-RATE. Eventually, the RIM 957 will be offered in an Internet version that works with the mail systems of participating Internet service providers. RIM is likely to offer a 957-style version of the 850 pager. The 850 pager uses Motient (formerly American Mobile Satellite) service to provide wireless access to any ISP mail account. A Web browser is in the works as an extra-cost option, and RIM provides tools to help companies develop custom applications.

The BlackBerry syncs with Microsoft Outlook and other contact managers, but its calendar and contact functions are primitive. If you want first-rate scheduling and contact management with wireless communications, OmniSky may be for you.

OmniSky (www.omnisky.com) marries a Palm V with a Novatel Minstrel V modem. The Palm snaps into the Minstrel to make a unit about the size of a Palm III, and works like a much-enhanced wireless Palm VII. OmniSky's network operates on a standard called CDPD, and is provided mostly by AT&T Wireless and Verizon. It's much faster than the BellSouth Mobile Data network used by the Palm VII and BlackBerry. But CDPD is not available in as many locations. Both systems are limited to the U.S. and Canada.

OmniSky supports all of the Web-based applications developed for the Palm VII, including traffic reports, weather, and market quotes. But it has one huge advantage. While the VII requires you to use a Palm.net mail address, OmniSky uses any standard Internet mail account. OmniSky lets you browse any Web site, including hundreds of URLs that have been reformatted for the Palm display. OmniSky's $39.95 unlimited monthly service is also a bit cheaper than Palm VII's $44.99 offering.

Handheld devices always require lots of compromises. BlackBerry has chosen to do one very difficult thing--business e-mail--extremely well. OmniSky opts to competently perform a wider variety of chores. The choice depends on your needs, but either is a worthy addition to a road warrior's arsenal.

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