E-Mail with No Wires Attached
A host of new services make sure you get the message

You have to be out of the office for a day, but can't be away from e-mail for that long. Do you lug a laptop and hope to find a phone line to plug it into? Or would you be better off with one of the new wireless handheld devices? Thanks to the arrival of a host of new gadgets and improvements in e-mail forwarding technology, option No. 2 is becoming more attractive to people on the go.

In fact, for some people, wireless e-mail can literally be a life saver. Jonas Matz, who spends up to 17 hours a day as a medic on Hollywood movie sets, uses Microsoft's Hotmail e-mail to coordinate schedules of fellow medics at other locations. ''I don't have to worry about getting a phone call, I can just check my Hotmail,'' he says.

SHORTCOMINGS. Wireless e-mail is still not easy, though. I've tried just about every service, and most of the time I've been disappointed. Many systems can't get to corporate mail hidden behind security walls. Critical attachments can't be opened. Small screens render some messages all but unreadable. And the all-too-common gaps in wireless digital network coverage often prevent you from retrieving messages when you need them.

But for people who need to be constantly in touch, these new services can be worth the hassles. To get the most from wireless, it's important to understand the pluses and minuses of the different types of services.

Web mail is the easiest to use. This free e-mail service, such as Microsoft Corp.'s ( MSFT) Hotmail, can be fetched with any Web browser. I've never had trouble getting to Hotmail with any device that can reach the Web, though it can be difficult to read messages that haven't been formatted for a tiny telephone screen. It pays to pick your Web phone wisely. Nextel Communications Inc. ( NXTL) phones are rigged to reach a specially formatted version of Hotmail.

Internet mail, the sort provided by Internet service providers (ISPs), generally doesn't work with phones, but can be picked up with wireless Palm-type handhelds. For $39.95 per month, OmniSky Corp.'s ( OMNY) wireless access service allows you to reach its own e-mail or any standard ISP e-mail. All you have to do is set up a wireless e-mail program with your user name and password and the address of the server computer where your mail is received and stored. Accessing America Online ( AOL) mail requires an extra step: You must download a special program from the AOL site to your Palm or PocketPC device.

It's more difficult to gain wireless access to corporate e-mail, which is usually tucked away behind a fire wall and can be reached only from computers attached to, or dialed into, the company's private network. So you must take extra steps to have important mail forwarded to an outside wireless account.

No matter what type of e-mail you're using, be careful when arranging to forward it. All of your messages may appear in your inbox as though they have come from you, not the actual sender. And if you just hit ''reply,'' you'll send the message back to yourself. When you send a message from a handheld, it can carry a return address that the recipient won't easily recognize--and he or she might not know how to reply. And when you get back to your regular mail, all the messages will be waiting for you as though they had never been read. Moreover, many mail systems offer little or no control over what gets forwarded.

The most convenient solution I've found is Research in Motion Ltd.'s ( RIMM) BlackBerry pager. The key to BlackBerry is software that works with Microsoft's Exchange e-mail program. The BlackBerry setup directs messages, selected according to my rules, to handheld devices. I can see whom messages come from, and I won't accidentally send a response to my own corporate account. The service costs $39.99 per month.

A handful of new services are designed to help corporations give employees wireless access to e-mail. One example: Wireless Knowledge, a joint venture between Microsoft and Qualcomm Inc. ( QCOM), provides secure transfer of e-mail between corporate systems and wireless devices. There's software in the works that will make a similar service available on OmniSky-equipped Palm and PocketPC handhelds.

Within a couple of years, it will be a no-brainer to use wireless devices to get info and e-mail from the Web. And today, even with all the glitches, wireless e-mail is a lot better than no mail at all.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom in Washington

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