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    E-mail on the go is still too pricey for many businesses

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver  June 22-28, 2004; issue 765

    High Tech Office column

    The 1997 movie Wag the Dog opened with the participants at a high-powered meeting slapping their PDAs on the table. Pocket-sized Personal Digital Assistants powered by Palm or Microsoft operating systems gave late-'90s executives on the go access to calendars, contact lists and more. But traditional handhelds no longer seem to have the same cachet. Sales are down; Sony, for one, just announced an end to marketing new versions of its Palm-powered Clie models.

    Instead, the gadgets-de-jour are smart phones combining the functions of a handheld PDA with a cell phone, making it possible to wirelessly read e-mail, and access the Web. I recently spent time with two smart phones provided by Rogers Wireless.

    PalmOne's Treo 600 ($600 with a two-year contract) packs a Palm-style PDA, phone, camera and keyboard into a unit that's slimmer and easier to handle than last-generation's Treo 300. The colour screen is easily viewed, though it's lower resolution than the screens on Palm's Tungsten PDA models. Like earlier Treos, it replaces writing on screen with a miniature QWERTY keyboard. The catch is that this smaller Treo has that much less room for the keyboard; many users may find it just too small for comfortable use. This Treo works better as a phone than earlier models; the phone-style on-screen keypad is easy to use, and there's good integration between the phone and the Palm address book. The 640 x 480-pixel camera makes it easy to snap a photo, save it, and send it to an e-mail recipient. The Blazer 3.0 Web browser does a good job reformatting Web pages so they can be displayed on the unit's small screen. And its Palm operating system means you can add hundreds of programs and games.

    Waterloo, Ontario-based Research in Motion (RIM) has grown into the fourth-largest seller of mobile computers, with a 6.4 per cent market share, based on sales of their Blackberry devices. Besides offering always-connected access to e-mail, the new Blackberry 7780 ($500 with a two-year contract) sports a colour screen, Web browsing, PDA-style address books and calendars and voice phone functions.

    Wider than the Treo, it feels more awkward as a phone. Lacking a touch-screen, you need to hunt and peck on the keyboard to dial a phone number that's not already saved. It was impossible to dial Fedex's 1-800-GO-FEDEX, because the Blackberry keyboard doesn't match letters and numbers like a traditional telephone keypad.

    But that added width makes its mini-keyboard much more hand-friendly than Treo's; it's much more comfortable for typing those e-mail replies. And that's what these units are about: e-mail access. Either can be used for real-time access to e-mail sent via a Rogers server, or more awkwardly, to access messages on a traditional Webmail account.

    Alternatively, RIM has sold a Blackberry server to over 17,000 companies, giving their users direct access to their corporate e-mail systems on the go. RIM's Mobile Data Service can allow companies to extend their sales or customer relations software to mobile employees. Corporate systems can allow Blackberries to access Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes systems.

    Its home-grown operating system lacks the wide variety of options available to Palm or Microsoft-powered units, but the built-in software for calendar and contacts is usable if unexciting. The Treo 600 is best thought of as a phone with integrated camera and Palm PDA that includes Web and e-mail. The Blackberry instead is a handheld e-mail system with added PDA and phone features, and is the clear choice for integration with corporate networks.

    Many individuals and small businesses, however, will find that wireless data plans are still too expensive to make e-mail on the go an affordable option for the rest of us.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan