With PocketMail, e-mail access is phone call away

With PocketMail, e-mail access is phone call away

Mini-messaging service keeps on-the-go telecommuters connected sans modems, notebook PCs

By Caron Golden

Special to GCN

It was by chance that George Collins discovered PocketMail. In April, while shopping at Office Depot, the emergency manager of the Okaloosa County, Fla., Office of Emergency Management saw the Sharp TelMail TM-20 and read about its ability to send and receive e-mail via a phone service.

Collins bought the $150 device and has been using it during emergencies and disasters to send situation reports from the field.

'It is more reliable than voice cellular when communicating large amounts of information and numbers,' he said. 'Also, you can send it to multiple recipients rather than making several voice calls.'

PocketMail, launched in September 1998, is from PocketScience Inc. Initially a member of NASA's Ames Technology Commercialization Center, the Santa Clara, Calif., company has developed communications technology that allows users to connect, via a personal digital assistant, to the PocketMail service for a monthly fee of $9.95.

The device simplifies mobile telecommuting, eliminating the need for lugging around cumbersome modems or hefty notebooks when all you want to do is check your e-mail. It's available as TelMail from Sharp Electronics Corp. of Paramus, N.J., priced at about $150, or as HC-E100 from JVC Americas Corp. of Wayne, N.J., for about $100.

The handheld assistants are about 6 inches by 3 inches and weigh just over half a pound. The backside is a flip-top, cell phonelike design. At one end is a pullout receiver and at the other a microphone. They can adjust to align with the earpiece and mouthpiece of a full-size desktop receiver or a cell phone.

Once lined up, users can call the service's toll-free number, push a button and download new messages that can be viewed on the eight-line, 40-character-per-line grayscale screen.

They also can send messages written on the miniature QWERTY keyboard. The transfer rate is 25 seconds for three 500-character messages. The Sharp and JVC devices run on two AA alkaline batteries and have integrated address books and optional password protection. The Sharp unit also has a personal organizer.

To activate the service, users can either sign up on PocketMail's Web site, at www.pocketmail.com, or call customer service at 800-390-5036. Users receive a PocketMail e-mail address but can keep their current e-mail addresses through the PocketMail Mailbox Consolidation feature.

Copies of e-mail from existing accounts are retrieved by the PocketMail Network and consolidated in the user account. It works with most e-mail providers using Post Office Protocol 3 or Internet Message Access Protocol 4, as well as with the America Online and CompuServe services. Customers whose servers are locked behind a firewall can manually set their e-mail programs to autoforward so PocketMail can retrieve messages.

Not all there

Are there limitations? At this early stage, yes. The Sharp and JVC equipment works only with analog phones, has a 4,000-character limit and can handle only text. The Message Title Preview feature, which allows only the sender and subject field to be downloaded to the device, gets close to the character limitation. The user can select which messages to download whole in a given session. Image attachments can be downloaded later to a computer.

PocketScience plans to announce later this year the results of negotiations that are taking place with suppliers and licensees, said David Westendorf, the company's director of marketing.

'PocketMail itself is able to carry more than text,' he said. 'I suspect as time progresses and the platform is more pervasive, you'll see more options on handheld devices.'

The limitations do not bother Collins, however, or Antoinette Paith, services business manager for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service in Hawaii.

Paith uses the JVC device while on the road, and she described it as 'easy, lightweight and economical.' It gives her immediate contact with agencies about problems she finds at base exchanges'an out-of-order pay phone, for example'and lets her transmit data to her office computer that she will need to prepare fact papers.

Although she cannot use PocketMail with her digital wireless phone, she pointed out that 'there are nearly 500 pay phones in my area, not to mention all of the other land lines available to me.'

'It's expanded my office to wherever there is a phone,' she said. 'Where once I could only communicate on e-mail if I was at my desk, now I like to say, 'Desk no longer required.' '

Caron Golden is a free-lance writer based in San Diego.


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