Technology

Peek-ing at Your E-Mail


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Editor's Rating: star rating

A new gadget called Peek offers mobile access to Web e-mail, and if the bugs are worked out, it could find a market

I just tested Peek, a small gadget that lets you check Web e-mail, like Hotmail from Microsoft (MSFT) or Google's (GOOG) Gmail, on the go. The device can access e-mail directly over T-Mobile USA's wireless network, so you can use it anywhere T-Mobile has coverage.

Peek is one of a new and rising tide of wireless gadgets that connect to cellular networks but aren't phones or laptops. This category was thrown for a loop last year by Amazon's (AMZN) e-reader Kindle (BusinessWeek.com, 11/19/07), which lets users download digital books via Sprint Nextel's (S) cellular network. Despite its limited functionality, Kindle has been a hit, reportedly selling 280,000 units since its introduction last November. Now, lots of other companies, Peek included, want to replicate this success. Peek's pitch? An easy-to-use gadget with an innovative subscription model that could appeal to penny-pinchers. But it has a few bugs to iron out.

For Peek, price is key. While there's been a rush into high-end smartphones, not everyone can afford an expensive handset like the Apple (AAPL) iPhone, along with its costly data plan. That's where a gadget like Peek, due to debut at Target (TGT) stores nationwide on Sept. 15, comes in.

Retailing for $100, Peek will require a payment of $20 a month for unlimited e-mailing. But you don't need to sign a wireless contract; Peek works on a pay-as-you-go basis, much like prepaid phones. You simply enter your credit-card number into the device or online, at getpeek.com, and you can start e-mailing immediately.

Attractive Design by IDEO

This business model is novel: Amazon has included wireless connectivity charges into Kindle's initial price, currently a hefty $349. Data plans from major wireless carriers require a subscription, or must be purchased with a voice plan. But the lion's share of Peek's executive team hails from prepaid mobile calling heavyweight Virgin Mobile USA, where Peek Chairman John Tantum was president. With that experience in mind, they've decided to adopt the pay-as-you-go business model that over the last decade has put cell phones into millions of new hands around the world.

The tiny gadget, which will initially come in three colors—charcoal gray, aqua blue, and black cherry—looks like a cross between Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry and a small calculator. It was designed by the famed IDEO, the designer of the Palm V digital organizer and TiVo (TIVO) video recorder, and looks sophisticated yet approachable. Its back is made of aluminum, and it's made sturdy by an interior metal frame. Its front surface, comprised of a 2.5-inch color display and a tiny backlit keyboard, is rubberized, so it makes for easy typing for someone with long fingernails. The gadget is targeted initially to women in their 30s and 40s who need to manage their online lives on the go, and to men who are not gadget geeks. I fit right into the first category, and I liked Peek's looks.

Equally important, Peek is easy to use. Besides the keyboard, the device only has three buttons: the power on-and-off button at the top, a go-back button, and a scroll wheel that can also be pressed to make menu selections. The setup allows for convenient one-handed navigation. Whenever you get new e-mail, a blue light flashes in the top left corner.

Some Flaws

You can set up Peek to send and receive e-mails from up to three Web e-mail accounts. The in-box is shared by all of the accounts, so you view all incoming e-mails on the same page. You can select which account to send an e-mail from. And you can import and save up to 1,000 contacts. On my preproduction, test device, it took Peek about 15 minutes to receive a new e-mail, and I also missed a few e-mails. But at the time of my test, the company was still debugging the software and tweaking its e-mail server. I am told these problems will go away by the Peek's debut.

However, other problems surfaced as well: E-mails containing Web pages and emoticons didn't come through correctly. And, naturally, I also couldn't click on any Web links people tend to send me via e-mail. As of now, Peek can only open attachments containing JPEG files: photos. But Peek's CEO, Amol Sarva, says that additional capabilities, such as an ability to open Word documents and to view e-mailed Web newsletters, will be added soon.

And this could be just the beginning: The startup is considering eventually enabling the device to connect to work e-mail, à la BlackBerry, and to allow instant messaging. A feature like that, I'm betting, could really expand Peek's market. Of course, before then, Peek needs to work all the bugs out.

Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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