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Putting E-Mail in Your Pocket


As wireless devices proliferate, things can get really frustrating for those of us whose vital corporate information is tucked safely behind fire walls. The one thing we need most--anywhere, anytime access to e-mail--has been the hardest to get. But the situation is getting markedly better.

For the past few years, unless your employer had made the big infrastructure investment needed to provide wireless access, there basically was only one satisfactory way to get to corporate e-mail over a wireless link: Research in Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry pager. Now, wireless Internet service provider OmniSky (www.omnisky.com) has taken a page from RIM's playbook and is offering BlackBerry-like access to people who use the OmniSky (OMNY) service on Palms and PocketPCs. And Onset Technology (www.onsettechnology.com) has tackled another piece of the wireless puzzle, providing a way to get file attachments to BlackBerry's and other devices.

The cleverness of the BlackBerry approach is to make it possible for people to get mail through Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes from their desktops--at a price that won't bust an expense account. Typically, the cost is $400 for the BlackBerry and $40 a month. "The people most likely to buy these things are spending other folks' money," says David K. Rensin, chief strategy officer of OmniSky. "It's our most important demographic." With the bean counters satisfied, RIM won the hearts of corporate IT departments by designing BlackBerry to provide secure service over existing server systems.

OmniSky has taken a page from the RIM playbook. If you have an OmniSky modem ($299 and up, with substantial rebates on some versions) and monthly service ($39.95), you can download the free CorporateLink service, which uses Microsoft Outlook running on a desktop to relay mail from any Microsoft Exchange or standard Internet mail account to your handheld.

CorporateLink, which I tried on a Compaq iPAQ PocketPC, has both advantages and disadvantages compared with BlackBerry. The RIM pager is always on, and messages are quietly downloaded to it one by one. Because of differences in network technology, OmniSky requires you to download your messages manually. While the process is relatively speedy, it's less convenient than BlackBerry's--and makes it much harder to sneak a look at your messages during a tedious meeting. On the other hand, CorporateLink lets you use the considerable capabilities of Outlook's mail-handling system to determine which messages get forwarded to your handheld. BlackBerry's filtering is much cruder.

FRUSTRATING. To offer an alternative to IT managers, OmniSky is partnering with startup ThinAirApps and Wireless Knowledge, a Microsoft-Qualcomm joint venture, to offer server-based mail forwarding. The Wireless Knowledge offering is available now, while ThinAirApps is still in development.

Reading mail on a Palm or PocketPC is generally a more pleasant experience than using a smaller RIM pager. But CorporateLink, like BlackBerry, strips attachments from messages before forwarding them. This is especially frustrating on PocketPCs, which, unlike Palms, can display formatted Word and Excel files.

Onset's METAmessage offers a workaround. It can deliver the text of attachments to any wireless device for an $8 monthly service charge. When an attachment-bearing message comes in, you forward it to a special address, and the service sends back a message containing the text extracted from the attachment. How well this works depends on the formatting of the attachment. I tried it on a BlackBerry 957 and found that Word documents generally were readable, though complex features like tables were mangled. Adobe Acrobat files were hit-or-miss. And Excel spreadsheets showed up as a mostly useless jumble. For an extra $4 a month, the service will direct attachments to a fax for printing in their original format.

As networks and devices improve, so will the ability to get wireless rich-text messages--with graphics and other features. For now, though, CorporateLink is a big help for anyone who wants a BlackBerry-like service on a Palm or PocketPC, while METAmessage is a good first step toward making attachments available anywhere. By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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