An E-Mailer Out to Squash Blackberry

This summer, Handspring's Treo will get a mail-handling format that'll do any road warrior proud

When the BlackBerry e-mail pager made its debut in 1999, I declared it "the first wireless device I'd want to carry around." Three years and many evaluations later, it's still the only wireless data device that has a permanent home in my briefcase. But that may be about to change. It looks like the BlackBerry, from Research in Motion (RIMM ), finally has some worthy competition: the Handspring Treo (HAND ).

Designing a good wireless handheld involves four major aspects. There's the hardware, the device software, the wireless network, and, especially for the mobile executive, the system that allows access to corporate e-mail hidden behind network firewalls. When I first looked at the Treo 180, which costs $399 with wireless activation (Tech & You, Dec. 17, 2001), it was a very nice combination of a phone and a Palm-based handheld. But the 180 lacked useful data services. Treo Mail, now in testing and scheduled for commercial release around the middle of the year, fills the gap.

Treo Mail, which was developed with Visto, a provider of Web-based e-mail and sync services, works much like RIM's BlackBerry mail to bring you wireless mail from any Microsoft Exchange or standard Internet account. I tested the Exchange version, which is the far trickier approach and the one most useful to the large number of mobile execs who depend on access to Exchange and Outlook.

Handspring's Treo

Treo Mail works by running a little piece of software, called a redirector, on your Windows desktop. As mail comes into your Exchange inbox, the redirector forwards an encrypted copy to a Visto server. When you connect to the network, your incoming mail is delivered to the Treo, any mail you have written on the Treo is sent, and any messages you have deleted on the handheld are also deleted from your Exchange account. There's no need to deal with the same messages a second time when you get back to your desk. For large-scale corporate users, Handspring and Visto also plan to offer a server-based version that won't require desktop machines to be running to forward mail.

Handspring provides a decent program for handling mail on the Treo. The design wisely abandons the standard handheld practice of trying to cram each entry in the message directory into a single line. Using two lines plus a separator for each message provides a tremendous increase in readability. The sacrifice in the number of message listings you can see at a time is more than worth it, especially with the Treo's jog control that allows for easy one-handed scrolling.

I wish Treo Mail offered more options for filtering the mail sent to the handheld. It provides very limited controls, relying instead on Outlook's extensive rules. But Outlook's filtering is quirky. There is no way, for example, to duplicate the BlackBerry setup that forwards only mail where your address appears in the "to" or "cc" line and ignores messages sent to mailing lists.

The biggest weakness in the TreoMail scheme, however, is the network. The initial version of the Treo is a triband GSM phone and is offered in the U.S. by VoiceStream Wireless and Cingular Wireless. (Treo Mail will be a $40 monthly surcharge above a voice calling plan.) A new always-on data service, called GPRS, is offered nationally by VoiceStream (VSTR ) and in selected markets by Cingular. But the system won't work on the Treo until a software upgrade is ready, and it may not be available by the time Treo Mail ships. Meanwhile, you have to initiate a connection for the Treo to exchange mail. I found the mail downloads were speedier than the 9.6 kilobit per second speed of the VoiceStream network would indicate, but I had to put up with a lot of calls that failed to connect at all. Things should get better when GPRS is available. I also expect better service on a version of the Treo that will be sold by Sprint PCS (PCS ) when Sprint launches its new 1X data network this summer.

The BlackBerry still has a couple of advantages over the Treo. It can deliver mail in the background without you needing to initiate a connection. And its wireless coverage is much better, especially if you are trying to get mail from deep within a building. But the Treo offers the Palm calendar and contact software, a decent browser, and access to all Palm OS applications. If the expected network improvements come through, Treo should be a real winner.

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