Taking It All On The Road Is A Page Away

tialrIT’S 11:30 A.M. AN; MY FINGERS ARE FLYING OVER MY laptop computer keyboard. I’m sitting in the cafe car of Amtrak’s Metroliner train, traveling to a client meeting while banging out an article that another client needs by noon. I polish off the final paragraph somewhere around Iselin, New Jersey. Now what?

Your daring and resourceful correspondent pulls a wireless modem card from his trusty computer case. He slaps it into the laptop’s PC Card (formerly PCMCIA) slot and hears the satisfying “bleep” of mutual recognition. I leap into the RadioMail Connection program, type a quick cover note, address it to my client’s Internet e-mail account, and attach the urgent file. “Send,” I click, and send it does, over the ARDIS wireless data network. Moments before the train enters the tunnel leading to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, my article completes its invisible journey.

In the past month I’ve experimented with cutting-edge wireless technologies. RadioMail (and other radio-based services such as U.S. Paging’s RadioExpress) is just one of the three alternatives. Its sophisticated mobile e-mail system works with laptop computers and several PDAs. Another option is to tie your notebook computer to your cellular phone with a cellular modem like the one from U.S. Robotic’s Megahertz division that I test-drove. It allowed me to perform most of my day-to-day data communications chores, such as logging on to an online service, from just about anywhere as if I were in the office. Finally, Skytel’s two-way pager system takes the portability of traditional pager technology and adds tremendous new versatility. Each has its own special strengths for small-business tasks. And each is, in a word, cool.

Mail to Go

The RadioMail system provides subscribers with an Internet address where you can receive mail on the go. You can send messages to any other Internet address (including commercial online services), or–if your client doesn’t have e-mail–fax the same message for an additional 99 cents a page. The software works very much like a deskbound Internet mail package.

The $700 to $750 Motorola Personal Messenger 100D wireless modem card I used to communicate with RadioMail is elegant, though pricey. (Megahertz has a similar card and recently announced an $89 per month lease plan that should take some of the sting out of setting up RadioMail.)

About the size of a five-inch TV remote with a mini flip-up antenna, the 100D is powered for three hours at a stretch by a single nine-volt battery. By the time you read this, Motorola will have extended the battery life to at least 15 hours. Installing both hardware and software was a breeze. The PC Card management software in my Dell Latitude XPi laptop recognized the wireless modem with no fiddling.

RadioMail service costs $39 a month for up to 100,000 characters, incoming or outgoing. The service expects the average message to run 1,000 characters, so you’ll get about 100 messages per month before incurring additional message costs of 32 cents for the first 1,000 extra characters and 16 cents per 500 after that. Distribution lists send the same document to several people at once, keeping costs down.

Still, RadioMail start-up expenses are high and heavy e-mail users are advised to find a way to keep costs in line. If your messaging needs are modest, you won’t mind the $40-per-month service charges. And if you need to initiate e-mail from anywhere, Radio-Mail works better than a two-way pager.

Online, Anywhere To explore cellular-based wireless communication, I test-drove a $379 XJ3288m modem from Megahertz in conjunction with a Motorola MicroTAC Ultra Lite phone. Connecting your laptop to a cellular phone is simple enough: A cellular-ready PC Card modem attaches via cable to the expansion port of a cellular phone. Then, instead of accessing a special wireless e-mail service provider like RadioMail, you connect to America Online or CompuServe or whatever via cellular. You’ve now gone beyond simply exchanging e-mail to complete access to your online service.

Although cellular modems work, they suffer serious problems that limit their utility. Does a cell phone voice call sound the same as a call on a regular corded phone? Fat chance! Since cellular data has to move over those same connections, the same modem that gallops along at 28.8Kbps when connected to a standard phone line can’t keep up on a cellular. I found myself running at 9,600bps on a good day and often going down to 4,800bps on a bad one. It’s still fast enough to retrieve e-mail and accomplish some basic info hunting, but it’s not the kind of speed we’re used to nowadays. I tried accessing my TCP/IP Internet account through the cell phone without luck.

Relatively slow speeds increase your connect time and drive charges for even the best-priced cellular service skyward. Equally important to your pocketbook, each attempt–successful or not–to get through via cell modem will cost you a minute of airtime charges. Trying to get into America Online on a weekday evening could send you to the poorhouse!

Two-Way Tango

So far both of my wireless solutions meant lugging a portable computer, or at least a brick-size PDA. For a pocket-size solution, I turned to the new Skytel service that uses the Tango two-way pager. Tango is roughly the size and shape of an ordinary pager, but the Skytel service (plus similar services that should be offered later this year from such companies as PageNet and American Paging) does lots of impressive new tricks.

First, your clients now have a new way to convey information to your pager. They can call a toll-free number and enter a numeric message on the phone keypad or dictate a text message to an operator. The service forwards numeric and text messages (up to 500 characters) directly to the pager.

Skytel also supplies free software disks that you can give to your clients so they can send messages directly to the pager via modem. Even without this software, they could send a pager message via regular Internet mail or through Skytel’s World Wide Web site.

Unlike an ordinary pager, you can immediately reply to your client’s incoming message with one of 16 preset responses. By using the Access software, or by dictating to a Skytel operator, the sender can also supply you with custom replies. To check on your response, the client calls the toll-free number again or logs in with the Access program.

For an even more potent two-way communications tool, you can add Hewlett-Packard’s HP 200LX palmtop PC or its new OmniGo handheld organizer and a $49 software/cable combo to the Tango pager. Now you can type responses on the organizer keypad (up to 95 characters) and, voila, instant wireless e-mail. You can’t, however, initiate e-mail to the Internet.

Skytel’s two-way pager service starts at $24.95 a month for 100 messages in your local area. National coverage starts at $74.95, or if you travel infrequently, you can buy temporary national extensions to your local coverage when necessary. The Motorola pager costs $399 from Skytel or leases for $15 a month. Although it lacks the ability to initiate e-mail, two-way pagers appear to be the most cost-effective wireless way to respond to a client’s e-mail.

Both CompuServe and America Online have announced plans to allow subscribers to forward incoming e-mail automatically. That could be a boon for travelers who need to pick up their e-mail from RadioMail or a similar system while on the road but prefer to use their established e-mail addresses at home. Some Internet mail readers already provide this capability.

There are also systems in the works.to integrate the voice/text/data communications process more tightly on your office PC. Properly implemented, these systems should forward appropriate messages to you by the wireless medium of your choice and allow you to access messages using anything from a wireless communications device to a standard telephone.

As with the cost of cellular phone calls over the past 15 years, expect wireless prices to come down. Existing wireless technologies, however, are already versatile, powerful, and reasonably priced for small-business people who need to keep in constant touch with clients.

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