E-mail on the road

With e-mail considered one of the most useful inventions of recent times, it's been the quest of many mobile travelers to find a way to access their mail when away from home without needing to carry a notebook computer. While there is not yet a perfect solution, there are some devices that have recently been introduced, including a new product, just pre-announced, that comes pretty close.

What are the requirements for the ideal product? First, a small, lightweight device that has a large enough screen to read and compose e-mail, a way to enter text of more than a few words without causing pain, and a means to wirelessly connect to a high-speed network wherever you are. Lastly, it is desirable to be able to open, read and even edit attachments sent with the e-mail.

There are three types of wireless networks: paging networks; cellular networks that encompass much of the country, referred to as WAN (wide area network); and WiFi, a high-speed wireless network with a very short reach, usually less than a couple of hundred feet, referred to as a LAN (local area network). Of the three, the cellular networks that connect our mobile phones are easiest to access; they are just about everywhere, but are much slower than WiFi. Cellular networks have data speeds today that are about the same as a dial-up phone line, while WiFi connections are about 100 times faster. Paging networks are becoming less popular, and devices that relied on them are shifting to cellular networks.

WiFi can be accessed at hotels, airports and an increasing number of coffee shops (like Starbucks) and at other private and public facilities. While they are fast, the providers generally charge a high fee -- although costs will drop, as an increasing number of locations now offer free access. Unlike accessing a cellular phone network instantly, WiFi requires some initial steps to connect the device to the network. As every WiFi network is its own entity with no way yet to move seamlessly between them, it only works in a fixed location. The best handheld product for WiFi is the new Palm Tungsten C. It has a built-in thumb keyboard and one of the best color screens of any PDA. It also comes with software that allows you to open attachments and access the Internet. This is where its high speed really shines.

Nearly all of the new mobile phones can receive e-mail from most accounts with popmail access (phones are preconfigured for Yahoo, AOL and Hotmail and need to be set up for other services) using the built-in software provided by Openwave Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: OPWV) of Redwood City. However, the screens are small and it's impossible to respond with their tiny 10-number keypads. It's best for checking your mail, but not for answering or reading attachments.

The smart phone, pioneered by Qualcomm, is the first PDA/phone combination. These are bigger phones that have somewhat larger screens and thumb type or add-on keyboards. They advantage of functioning as a PDA is that it allows you to dial anyone in your address book, have better e-mail capabilities, including the ability to read and edit attachments, and have keyboards enabling replies to be sent. The disadvantages are that you sacrifice size for the smart phone features, and these phones are usually data-centric rather than voice-centric, meaning the products are PDA-like rather than like the small phones most people prefer.

Cellular wireless providers offer a couple of device choices. However, none offer all of the best devices, so you may need to pick an inferior device to keep your current plan or change your provider to get the device you want. Most people are reluctant to change their service because it means changing your phone number. The good news is that number portability, the ability to take your cell number to a new provider, will become law in November, so changing providers will be less of a hassle. This new law may force phone companies to offer more of these new products or risk losing customers.

It seems as if a new smart phone is announced weekly. The challenge has been to combine all these functions in a small but useable product. The highest rated smart phones (in no special order) are the Treo 270 (AT&T, T-Mobile) and Treo 300 (Sprint), the Kyocera 7135 (Verizon), the Palm Tungsten W (AT&T), the Sony Ericsson P800 (T-Mobile), the Samsung SGH-i500 (Sprint) and the color version of the Danger Sidekick (T-Mobile).

I predict that one of the hottest products will be the new Treo 600, just announced from Handspring (Nasdaq: HAND) for fall delivery. Handspring, which is being acquired by Palm (Nasdaq: PALM), is known for its innovative products and has broken all the rules again. This truly tiny phone, has packed into it a large, bright, color screen, a useable thumb keyboard, a digital camera and an SD format storage card. This is the first phone that has the best of the voice-centric and data-centric features in such a small size (see for details).

Many business people rave about the RIM Blackberry, the first device to use the thumb keyboard in a pager-size device. RIM (Research in Motion of Ontario, Canada, Nasdaq: RIMM) perfected the means to access and send e-mail while keeping your Outlook mail up to date on your office computer. RIM first used the pager networks and now has versions using most of the cellular networks, even some that include phone functionality. To get the full benefit of a RIM, your business needs software on the server and office computer that provides the e-mail synchronization between the Blackberry and your computer.

With all these changes we may be seeing a new era where voice and data become standard on all phones. It will be easier than ever to stay connected. However, with summer vacation time approaching you may just want to turn all these devices off and chill out for a week or two!

Baker is San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000 for successfully bringing to market Think Outside's folding keyboard for the Palm and other PDAs. He also has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents. He can be reached at

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