Hotels and modems are like oil and water: nothing is worse than getting to your hotel after a long flight only to spend the next hour trying to configure your laptop to communicate. And while things have gotten somewhat better since I wrote my first PC Week column on this subject over 11 years ago, it still isn't great.
I have a radical notion for you travelers: give up your laptops! Some new services and products -- coupled with better Internet access and web browser ubiquity -- have at least made it easier to get your email when on the road.
I haven't owned a laptop since January, and instead make use of a series of local libraries, public terminals at various airports or cybercafes. At worse, I've borrowed a client's computer and network connection. (A friend of mine mentions how he managed to "borrow" some bandwidth at an overseas' Cisco office to get connected back home.)
For cybercafes, use the word to search Yahoo or Lycos for sites that maintain listings and links to these places. And Ernst Larsen has a java-based map with listings all over the world.
Using a cybercafe or a library can be very cost- effective, since they offer better bandwidth at very reasonable prices. Many cafes have T-1 or other higher- speed connections to the Internet, better than you would usually get using a 33 Kbps modem in your hotel room. And their charges typically are under $10/hour of access, which is much less than most hotels charge even for local phone calls of any duration.
Once you get to the cafe, there are several choices, depending on your circumstances. If you need your own email account, then check out one of the several free email services that are available (searching Yahoo for "Free Email" will uncover about a dozen). A few of these vendors such as RocketMail and HotMail offer email accounts that don't require any special client software: you merely connect to their sites with your web browser, enter your user name and password, and can proceed to your email activities.
If you do decide to use these services when on the road, remember to clear your browser's cache and exit the program before leaving the computer. This is important when you are sharing a public machine, as some of these services can save your user information in memory, making it easy for the next person who uses this shared machine to gain access to your account.
If your mail server is running POP and SMTP, then you can use either ReadMail or MailStart. Point your browser to either's site, type in your email ID and password, and in a few seconds these sites will retrieve your mail from your server. You can delete, reply, and save this mail just as you would any other POP account -- the only difference is that these actions happen inside the browser's frame.
ReadMail has the better interface, and with both services you can leave your email on your server so you can download it to your desktop when you later return to the office. Both claim not to store any identifying information such as your password, but it is also a good idea to clear the cache and exit the browser if you are accessing these systems on a shared or public machine.
When I said earlier that I didn't use a laptop, I wasn't giving you the whole truth: I do carry a device to access my email when I am out and about, but that device is an AT&T PocketNet CDPD cell phone. The phone has a small but serviceable screen and can connect to my POP mailer. Replying with anything more than a few words is painful, but for getting mail quickly, it is a champ.
Another service you also might want to check into is from eNow, which I haven't used. You set up an account with them and can hear your email being read to you via a phone call. Call 1-888-hear-e-now or go to eNow herefor a demo.
A warning: some of these services don't work if your POP server is behind a firewall, or if your ISP has turned off the ability to get mail from outside their network. And if you aren't using a POP mail system, you are almost out of luck.
Almost, that is, unless you have an SMTP gateway to your LAN-based mail system at your shop. There are other products that work as web-based gateways to these mail servers: typically, you have to first install them on a web server that is part of your LAN. The web- based gateway products don't always offer the same functionality found on a Windows client: something such as calendar access is usually missing when it comes to using the web client with these groupware products.
This is still an emerging field, and I am sure that there are lots more products than I have highlighted here. Stay tuned to this page for more links.
My monthly Windows Sources column is now called NT Webmaster. The December issue is called Become a Channel Broadcaster. I show you how to make your own PointCast/Microsoft CDF channel by using nothing more than a text editor!
My latest review for Computerworld appeared last week and looked at the web-based technical support forums offered by a new company called Right NowTechnologies.
My latest NT Enterprise advertorial supplement in Network Computing is out. I wrote one of the articles (which served as the basis for this essay) as well as managed other contributions on web access to corporate data.
Finally, I'm off to Interop Sydney next week to speak and teach on a variety of subjects, including eCommerce, web servers and push. You can download the presentation slides, and if you are going to be at the show, let me know.
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