By Howard Millman

With the convenience and increased coverage of cellular phones, carrying a wireless e-mail “communicator” may seem like self-indulgent gadgetry. But the difference between a gadget and a tool depends on circumstances. For example, you may want to discreetly key in a message during a meeting. Or, in addition to e-mail, you may want access to personal information such as calendars and schedules when away from the office. In both cases, an e-mail communicator is a sensible replacement for a heavier laptop.

According to IDC, handheld e-mail and PIM devices will increasingly challenge laptop dominance. IDC predicts that over the next 12 months, 70 percent of mobile workers will use laptops regularly, compared to the 90 percent that currently use laptops.

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On the other hand, there’s no free lunch. These appliances are costly—up to $500, plus a monthly service charge averaging from $25 to $50, depending on the options you choose (geographic coverage, amount of airtime, and length of the service contract). What’s more, the devices’ three- to four-inch LCD screens are hard on the eyes and limit the amount of text displayed. Graphics are primitive compared to those on a desktop. Finally, if you don’t want a separate address for wireless messages, your office’s Exchange, Notes, or Groupware server has to forward the e-mail to your device. That requires sophisticated and expensive server software.

Still, if being constantly connected is paramount, the devices’ benefits outweigh their limitations. One of those benefits is that exchanging packetized wireless data is often more reliable than wireless voice connections.

Handhelds, software, and integration
Unlike their more primitive predecessors, the newer handhelds do more than just receive and send e-mail messages. Their personal information management tools synchronize with your desktop’s calendar, address book, and task list so you’re always current.

The market leader in personal e-mail-only communicators is Research in Motion’s (RIM) five-ounce BlackBerry 957. RIM’s useful communication and personal organizer applications integrate with Lotus Notes/Schedule/Organizer and Microsoft Outlook/Outlook Express/Schedule, plus several contact management applications such as Symantec’s Act and Goldmine. The BlackBerry’s 16-line backlit LCD display measures 4.6 x 3.1 x .7 inches and is well suited for reading and composing short messages. The RIM 957 typically sells for $499, although discounts are available if you take a service contract.

In addition to the service contract, if you want to fully integrate your BlackBerry and existing enterprise e-mail system, you need to purchase RIM’s enterprise software to send and receive e-mail. RIM offers both a server and a desktop version of the software. The BlackBerry desktop software installs and executes on the desktop PC. The primary benefit is that it synchronizes with your address book, calendar, and to-do lists. On the downside, you have to leave your desktop running when you’re away—a possible security liability.

BlackBerry Enterprise Server is installed on a server. With this configuration, e-mail is redirected at the server rather than the desktop. Its benefits include central administration, centralized security, and performance monitoring. Both the desktop and server versions are available for Lotus Notes/Domino as well as Microsoft Outlook/Exchange. Prices range from $50 to $100 per user for both platforms and for both the desktop and server versions.

A variety of add-on software can enhance BlackBerry connectivity. For example, options for the GoAmerica GoWeb wireless Web browser include applications that deliver news, stock quotes, and sports updates.

Large companies seeking to seamlessly extend e-mail to hundreds of devices using their employees’ current e-mail addresses need store-and-forward server software such as AvantGo’s M-Business Server. Although pricey, the software gives remote workers access to devices on other platforms and to legacy e-mail systems such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange. It works with BlackBerry e-mail pagers, Palm OS devices, Windows CE units, and Pocket PCs. M-Business Server runs on Windows NT 4.0/2000/XP, Linux, and Solaris. Prices begin at $30,000.

BlackBerry’s chief competitor, Motorola Timeport P935, offers e-mail capabilities and links to popular personal information managers such as Outlook, Act, and Lotus Organizer. In addition, the handheld integrates with Microsoft Outlook/Exchange Server, Lotus Notes/Domino, Eudora, Sidekick, and Act. The P935’s backlit screen displays nine lines of text, about one-third less than does the RIM, measures 3.75 x 2.85 x 1.2 inches, and weighs nearly 7 ounces. Webaholics can use the P935 to access selected Web content through microbrowsers.

Motorola’s proprietary Wisdom 4.0 operating system powers the unit. It uses an icon-driven interface, similar to the RIM 957’s. One difference: Instead of using a scroll wheel to navigate through icons as does the BlackBerry, the Timeport uses a rocker button.

Before you buy
Regardless of which hardware you choose, your first decision is to select a wireless service provider. You need to choose between a service plan that will assign a new e-mail address to your handheld and one that forwards e-mail from your existing e-mail system—which is more expensive and more complex to implement. The former plans cost less because they don’t require server-based software to forward the messages to a wireless carrier, such as Motient or BellSouth.

Palm V users who want to transform their standalone handhelds into wireless communicators can turn to Motient’s recently announced MobileModem. The sled-like device costs $179 if purchased with a one-year service contract. The service costs $50 per month for unlimited access via Motient’s proprietary 19.2 Kbps network. Motient’s service can redirect your existing AOL e-mail to the Palm, or you can select an e-mail address for the device.

A cheaper alternative for AOL subscribers is the company’s messenger service. Messages sent to your AOL e-mail address are forwarded to the AOL Mobile Communicator, which costs about $100. The service costs roughly $30 per month, on top of AOL’s basic monthly service charge of about $23. A note of caution, AOL’s unit does not sync to your computer, so you have to key in your address book. On the unit’s small keyboard, that’s a time-consuming chore.

Yahoo and EarthLink offer similar wireless e-mail services. EarthLink charges $40 per month for unlimited airtime over the BellSouth network, plus $399 to $499 for RIM BlackBerry pagers.

Trade in your laptops
Increased worker mobility will lead to a proliferation of wireless appliances, say analysts. Already, 21 percent of the employees at 3,500 global companies work remotely, according to a managerial survey by Gartner. The same study predicts that the number of mobile workers will rise 31 percent over the next two years. Similarly, Forrester Research predicts that 45 percent of Internet users will connect with two or more wireless devices by 2003 and that spending on those devices will increase 300 percent.

If having more wireless devices on the market leads to lower prices, getting e-mail to employees on the go will be a more attractive option. And those laptops will look less and less attractive.

This document was originally published by CNET on Nov. 15, 2001.

Howard Millman is a writer and computer technology consultant based in Croton, NY. He contributes regularly to ZDNet Tech Update and helps make computers behave.

Handheld and PIM devices vs. the laptop

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