David Strom

Wireless Data Services: A mid-year reality check

By David Strom

For a technology that has been around for most of this century, it is hard to pin down

exactly what is wireless data and where it is going. In its purest form, wireless data uses

some form of the electro-magnetic spectrum (radio, infrared, or microwave) to communicate

between two or more devices. However, this covers many different uses and applications:

everything from cellular telephone modems to pagers, dedicated data terminals in moving

vehicles to handheld radio modems, and new devices with built-in radios such as Motorola's

(Schaumburg, IL) Envoy. Even mainstream computing vendors such as IBM (Armonk, NY)

and Dell (Austin, TX) have latched on to wireless as their rallying cry to boost interest, sales

and hopefully, profits in their wares. The next twelve months promises more of the same. 

What complicates matters is that the market is changing quickly as new players arrive with

new products and service offerings, and that the relationships among the players is complex

and require lots of study. This makes wireless data products harder to evaluate and categorize

than wired data solutions.

Dealing with all this new-found mobility that wireless data offers is one issue: since users are

not often found at fixed locations, it is hard to assemble all the gear needed to go wireless,

and harder still to track problems and evaluate the technologies without extended efforts.

Another issue is that wireless data lies at the cusp of computing and communications: is a

wireless transceiver more of a replacement for wired modems or local area network (LAN)

connections? Not helping matters any is that an entire new vocabulary is needed to deal with

this emerging world. Software developers that indicated their products were "dialing the

phone" (when was the last time your phone had a dial anyway) and going "off hook" to make

a data "call" or on a particular "telephone number" no longer make sense in the wireless

world.  There are no wires, no phones, no phone numbers, and no hooks. 

And finally wireless data can be still more of a stunt than a practical and mature technology:

cutting through the hype and fluff will take a determined buyer or researcher to figure out the

limits and business benefits of each particular wireless niche.

In this last respect, the wireless data of the 90s has a long history: a group of Union College

students crafted the first wireless baby carriage -- complete with antenna, batteries, tuner and

baby -- 73 years ago this month in Schenectady, N.Y. (The city was home to a large General

Electric plant and the college had one of the first broadcast AM radio stations, WRUC.)  No

evidence was recorded of any harmful effects caused by the radio apparatus to the baby,

however.  [To get rights to this photo, give Peter Blankman a call at 518 370 6000 in the

alumni magazine office.]

So where to start? Who are the major players? What's the overall market potential, and where

is this industry going? Will there be rapid growth on a variety of fronts, or will many dollars

be lost chasing dreams and few customers? And what are the actual realities of wireless

technologies anyway?

To answer these questions, let's first break down the entire wireless market into the following

six categories, presented in no particular order, and assess the issues for each category:

1. Analog cellular modems. These include both standard data modems as well as fax modems

for cell phones. (The modems themselves aren't wireless: they still need the radio inside the

cell phone to communicate wirelessly.) BIS Strategic Decisions (Norwell, MA) estimates that

there are 200,000 cellular customers that are using data modems, with an estimated $140

million worth of data transmitted last year, or about $5 a month of data calls. That doesn't

make much sense: either most cellular modems aren't being used all that much, or there are

fewer actual customers if you believe the overall total market value number. 

If this estimate is true, it is probably the largest current market for wireless data services both

in terms of total customers and revenues. It is a rich market as well, with a variety of

companies active and many available products. Leading vendors include AT&T Paradyne

(Largo, FL), Data Race (San Antonio, TX) and Hayes Microcomputer Products (Norcross,


This last year saw several new cellular modems which fit into special slots on a variety of PC

laptops. These slots, called Personal Computer Memory Card International Association

(PCMCIA) slots or PC card slots, are about the size of a credit card and less than half an

inch thick. The modems cost $300 or more, but prices are dropping fast as there is lots of

competition and over a dozen manufacturers currently. They draw power from the laptop

itself, which tends to limit their useful life to about an hour or so of actual communications.

There are other cellular modems that are larger than PCMCIA cards as well for those laptops

that don't have the slots, such as any of Apple's Powerbooks.

But cellular modems have several issues: nationwide roaming, attachment cost, and reliable

connections. Roaming is particularly difficult, as only a few cellular systems have made

things easier for customers who cross coverage boundaries have found out.

Attachment is cumbersome and costly, as no two cell phones have the same interface or plug

that can be used to connect them to a laptop computer. Unlike ordinary wired telephones, cell

phones lack the RJ11 jacks and have specialized electronics that make plug-and-play

impossible with a wide variety of modems. For example, AT&T Paradyne's KeepInTouch

modem only works with the Nokia (Sausalito, CA) cell phone. Typical prices for the

connecting cables alone start at $100 and can be as high as $400. And reliable connections

are still troublesome as cellular signals get dropped or fade as users move about while


Data Race is one company that seems to be on the leading edge of cell modems. It offers

adapter cables for the widest range of phones, including models from AT&T, OKI, NEC,

Motorola and Pioneer. The adapters sell for less than $200 (which is still pricey given that

you are only getting a cable) and connect the phone to its PCMCIA card modem called

RediCard. While we have not tested the card with any cellular phone, this approach has lots

of merit.

Nevertheless, these obstacles are not insurmountable, as evidenced by United Parcel Service,

the most notorious and visible cellular data customer. Last year, UPS finished outfitting all of

its 50,000 delivery vehicles with cellular data modems. They hammered through agreements

with a smattering of cellular providers to ensure nationwide coverage for their

package-tracking system. UPS representatives report that the system works and works well.

At the heart of the UPS system is a technology called a cellular modem pool. Essentially the

same concept as a wired modem pool, a cellular modem connects to this apparatus (located at

each carrier's switching center) and the data is then transported over ordinary land lines back

to UPS' host computers. The modem pool is maintained by the cellular provider, and further

ensures that no modem mismatch will occur between originating and destination modems.

Ameritech (Hoffman Estates, IL), GTE (Atlanta, GA), and Nynex (Orangeburg, NY) have

begun offering these modem pools to their commercial customers in many parts of their

service territories, usually without any additional monthly fees above those for making the

data calls themselves.

Another interesting development is a product called Simon, jointly marketed by Bell South

(Atlanta, GA) and IBM. It looks like a cell phone and behaves like one, with some additional

features such as a cc:Mail client and fax capabilities built-in. Simon just started shipping last

month and we were unable to obtain one for evaluation prior to publication. The cost of the

device is $900 and it will work for eight hours from its battery, according to the announced


All of these signs point towards more activity in the analog cellular data arena: there are

almost 15 million cell phones moving about the countryside and the potential market

opportunity is huge: Users use the same applications, understand how wired modems work,

and are already carrying PC-based laptops with them when on the road. If cellular carriers can

reduce the cost and hassle of the modem connection, they should reap a windfall.

2. One-way radio receivers.  Pagers are the most noticeable devices here. This category also

includes a variety of other dispatch-related display terminals as well. About 15 million pagers,

according to various estimates, are in current use. However, the vast majority of these devices

have no displays ("beepers") or  have one-line displays with sparse memory that can receive

and store very little data. 

Newer and more capable products have been announced over the past few months, including

two pager products that are small enough to fit into a standardized PCMCIA card slot in

several laptop and palmtop computers. They can be found on Apple's (Cupertino, CA)

Newton, Hewlett Packard's (Corvallis, OR) 100LX and Tandy's (Ft. Worth, TX) Zoomer

palmtop computers. 

However, while the slots on all three palmtops may look the same, they require a variety of

systems software so that a pager card designed for one computer may not work in another.

For example, Motorola's Embarc News Card (Boynton Beach, FL) will work in the Tandy but

not the others, and Wireless Access's AccessCard (San Jose, CA) will work in the HP LX but

not the others. 

These devices cost anywhere from $50 to $500, the higher end of the scale occupied by the

newer and smaller PC card pagers. Monthly charges start at $15 and quickly go to $100

depending on certain premium services selected. Batteries -- typically the AA or AAA

commonly found in any airport newsstand -- last days or weeks.

There are three critical issues before these advanced pagers will go "platinum" and sell in the

millions of units: First, what is the business benefit over ordinary alphanumeric pagers? The

PC card pagers require a palmtop costing several hundred dollars. They are more cumbersome

to operate, since users have to navigate the palmtop's operating system and press keys or use

pen-strokes to read their messages. These difficulties have to be balanced against expanded

information obtained from the device.

The ideal use for advanced pagers is the ability to broadcast information to many recipients at

once. This is the notion behind Motorola's Embarc, which is not a standard paging service

and requires some intelligent device to receive messages. Like a television broadcast, this is

strictly for one-way, non-interactive applications to a wide audience. Any uses that require

acknowledgment of this communications won't be appropriate or cumbersome for this market

segment. Embarc differs from the one-to-one communications of less-capable pagers and

beepers. Understanding this difference is critical to producing a successful application on

these advanced devices.

Second is the ease of nationwide roaming, or being able to receive data no matter where you

are located in the US. Several paging service providers already offer nationwide roaming:

SkyTel (Washington, DC) and MobileComm (Atlanta, GA) are two examples. Motorola's

NewsCard offers nationwide roaming but configuring it isn't easy and requires some key (or

pen) strokes.

A third issue is the ease of integration into host platform applications. A very compelling

business reason to use PC card pagers is the ability to manipulate the data received by the

device in other applications that are running on the palmtop. For example, a message saying a

meeting has been changed could update the calendars of all the participants automatically, as

well as notifying them of the change. This is still far from what is currently offered in out of

the box with any PC card device, although several third-party developers have begun work on

various applications. 

For example, a Colorado bank service company offers its banking customers daily mortgage

rate updates via the Embarc system: the messages are downloaded into custom databases and

other applications that check to see if prospective home buyers can qualify for particular


3. Nationwide two-way radio data network providers. Right now there are exactly two

systems that are up and running: RAM Mobile Data (New York, NY) and Ardis, Inc.

(Lincolnshire, IL). These companies have spent many millions of dollars to assemble radio

towers and switchgear as well as billing systems and other infrastructure needed to provide

coverage. These network providers are plumbing: actual users will probably not be so

brand-conscious and look towards individual applications to force their decision on which

network to use. More on these applications in a moment.

Ardis has the largest customer base, reported to be over 30,000 users. Most of these are IBM

and Motorola field service technicians (Ardis was initially formed as a partnership between

the two companies, and TK latest info on what is happening here.) that use portable devices

manufactured by Motorola. RAM has several thousand customers. Wireless modems that

work on one network won't work on the other, although Motorola has made some

announcements about future products that will work on both. And applications are usually

device- and networ-specific: typically, applications developers choose one network provider

and one wireless modem for their applications.

The networks charge varying rates for usage. RAM currently has three pricing tiers: ranging

from $25 to $135 a month depending on the amount of packets moved over the network.

Ardis has similar pricing.

Many marketing dollars have been spent to differentiate these two systems, but they are

essentially the same and compete for the same sorts of customers: white-collar workers who

want to run applications without wires, and move about the countryside as well. RAM and

Ardis are both looking to replace and augment wired modems in their usage patterns: they

have gone after typical modem-friendly applications such as messaging, disptach, tracking and

file transfer. 

Both networks reach primarily metropolitan areas around the country, and coverage inside

buildings varies depending on the elevation and building exterior construction. 

Several other networks are being installed for data communications: most notable is the

Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) network. CDPD is a loose-knit consortium of several

cellular phone providers, including McCaw's (Kirkland, WA) Cellular One affiliates and GTE.

CDPD augments the switchgear and existing cellular infrastructure by providing a digital

packet network for data. It has begun service in a few cities but isn't expected to cover the

nation for several years, however. And "begun service" is somewhat generous: most of the

customers are still experimenting with various pilot applications, and no commercial rate

cards have actually been published yet, with McCaw making individual deals with customers

over pricing.

CDPD is looking to augment traditional LAN-based applications such as transaction

processing and client/server applications. This is because at the heart of the CDPD network is

the Internet Protocol (IP) that are used by millions of computers of every shape and size

around the world. This could prove to be a challenge for phone companies, who are used to

selling voice and connection-based applications such as fax, to understand and market.

The three networks (RAM, Ardis, and CDPD) share the same major issue of getting users and

applications to work with their systems. It isn't easy, and requires the following steps:

First, you need some way to connect your host computer to their network. This is typically

done with a X.25 link (in the case of RAM and Ardis) or a dedicated T-1 circuit and router

for CDPD. Next, you need the radio modem on the user end that will link to their network:

all your mobile users have to have them. Finally, you need to modify whatever applications

these users will use so they will run over the wireless link. All of this is time-consuming,

requires multiple highly-skilled people, and is complex to get working. RAM has begun to

make things easier by offering a wireless modem pool similar to the kind of service offered

by many of the cellular companies. This would eliminate much of the complexity needed to

connect the host computers to their network. But any application deployment will still require

a great deal of skill and effort to pull off.

In addition to CDPD, there is alot of movement afoot for what is called Personal

Communications Services (PCS) frequencies. Basically, the Federal Communications

Commission last September agreed to open up for auction several frequencies, including some

that are presently used by other microwave uses. (Any winner of the these auctions will have

to pay to change these existing customers to another frequency.)  However, each of the

service areas is to be auctioned separately, making a difficult, costly, and time-consuming

process for any single vendor to obtain a nationwide license for these frequencies.

Supposedly, the auctions will begin later this year. [TK: check this] This is a confusing and

rapidly changing arena, and one where a great deal of money will be spent chasing too few

customers for the next several years. 

And besides PCS there are a number of other two-way network providers that are building up

their systems. These vendors include Pinpoint (Dallas, TX), Nextel (Rutherford, NJ),

Metricom (San Jose, CA), and Racotek (Minneapolis, MN). Many of these had their origins

in what is called specialized mobile radios or SMRs, mainly taxi and other vehicular dispatch

systems. Each uses different technologies, spectrum frequencies, and has different power

requirements and coverage areas. However, all are contenders to providing nationwide access

for roaming users.

The issues for these vendors are coverage and funding, in addition to the challenge of getting

applications up and running on their networks. Since many of them grew from acquiring

individual metropolitan dispatch operators, they have to grow their networks quickly and

provide solid coverage across the country. Nextel has the coverage advantage, having licenses

in 45 metropolitan areas already. Both RAM and Ardis have already built their own networks

and are operating them today. 

Funding is also an issue: while RAM, Ardis, and the various CDPD have deep pockets and

big backers (RAM gets most of its funding from Bell South, for example), many of these

vendors will have a hard time obtaining revenue while they build out their networks. 

Metricom may have the advantage here: Microsoft has purchased a large stake in the

company, and the company is barely breaking even from its first set of products, a wireless

electric meter that has been popular with many utilities. Its network covers part of the Bay

Area in California, and has devices that are similar to the Mobidem in size, weight, and

battery life. The key difference is that its base stations can be placed on utility poles (both

RAM and Ardis like to site them on top of expenisve large towers or buildings) and that they

consume very little power. Nevertheless, Metricom will have to find customers quickly to


Finally, no mention of nationwide networks could be complete with discussing AT&T's

involvement. AT&T (Parsippany, NJ), while not providing actual wireless networks, is

involved and supportive in two areas: first is with the General Magic (Mountain View, CA)

alliance by providing a service called PersonaLink, which will connect all the various devices

running MagicCap, the new operating system developed by General Magic. Products such as

Motorola's Envoy when released later this summer will use Ardis' networks and built-in radio

modems to talk to this service. And AT&T's Easylink makes use of RAM's network

transports so that individual Windows users can connect to their electronic mailboxes

wirelessly. Obviously, AT&T is playing the field and trying out various technologies.

Easylink has never been widely popular outside of AT&T's own employees: both Compuserve

and MCI Mail have more mailboxes and market share. However, Easylink was the first of the

third-party email service providers to offer a wireless option.

Motorola's Magic Cap device, called Envoy, isn't yet shipping, but we are gratified to finally

see a device that has built-in communications as part and parcel of the basic package. While

expensive (initial prices are expected around $1500), they might become a mass-market

consumer item in a few years when the price drops and people understand what they are used


4. Two-way data-only radio modems for nationwide usage. These are typically used by

roaming individual users and can be either data-only modems such as Ericsson GE Mobile

Communications' (Totowa, NJ) Mobidem or Motorola's Infotac. These devices are alternatives

to analog cellular modems and have several differences: First off, they operate completely

digitally, unlike modems that covert data streams from digital to analog signals. Second, they

operate over the packet radio networks maintained by RAM and Ardis, unlike the modems

which use connection-oriented means. 

For example, if I use a cellular modem to send data to a host computer, I am charged for the

entire time that I am connected, whether I send any data or not. With the Mobidem and

Infotac (and the CDPD modems mentioned below), I am billed for only the actual packets

that are sent, regardless of whether I am connected for minutes or hours to a particular host.

Finally, they are dedicated for data, unlike cellular modems which piggyback on top of voice


These devices cost upwards of $700 and weigh about a pound. Battery life is about 5 to 10

hours, depending on usage, and are rechargeable and replaceable with specialized ones

available from each vendor. A variety of software applications make use of these devices

which we will get to in a moment.

CDPD has its own set of radio modems, and of course these won't work on either RAM's or

Ardis' networks. The first commercial product is a modem from Pacific Communication

Sciences, Inc. (San Diego, CA) called the Ubiquity 1000 that fits inside an IBM ThinkPad

750. It weighs about half a pound and replaces the floppy drive of the laptop. It can run in

four different modes: as a CDPD wireless modem, as an analog cellular modem, as a wired

modem, or as a voice phone (either over cellular or wired connections) with an optional

headset. All this functionality comes at a hefty price of $1495, which puts it out of reach of

most business users for the time being. 

Don't have a Thinkpad? PCSI has a second CDPD product that is an external modem with the

same functionality that will attach to any DOS computer. This is the Ubiquity 2000 and

priced at $1595. Both have about an hour and a half transmission time on their rechargeable

batteries, which according to experts could last several days of actual use -- but we haven't

tested this claim. 

Cincinnati Microwave (Cincinnati, OH) has also announced CDPD modems, but these will be

available through individual cellular operators. The MC-DART 100 is a CDPD-only modem

and will sell for about $500. This device weighs less than a pound and requires a continuous

power source, such as from a wall socket or a car lighter.

Two critical issues here are coverage and roaming. The radio device is tied to a particular

network, and if that network hasn't yet built any towers in your neighborhood you are out of

luck. Coverage on all of these devices is still less than that offered by the analog cellular

network, which has had a ten-year jump on building its infrastructure. Roaming is also an

issue here: while the Mobidem can freely roam around the country and transmit and receive

data without any user intervention, the Infotac is still a bit clunky, with Motorola promising

upgrades for roaming Infotacs this year. We have not been able to obtain a CDPD modem to

test its roaming capabilities.

Both Motorola and Ericsson have promised smaller PCMCIA card modems for later this year,

and that size will make these devices more competitive and convenient. In the meantime,

these radio modems will be difficult to justify for wide deployment.

5. LAN wire replacement devices.  There are a variety of products which are useful in places

where network wiring (Ethernet or Token Ring) can't be used or where it is expensive to

cable to the desktop: for example, in college campuses that span multiple locations in a given

city where it would be costly to purchase a dedicated circuit to connect the locations or on a

factory floor where running cables is difficult. Here the actual users are at fixed locations,

unlike other wireless applications where users move about.

The idea is that you replace the network cable and interface card with a special device that

has a radio transceiver. This talks to a base station which has both another radio and a bridge

back to the wired LAN. They have relatively short ranges, typically from 10 meters to 100

meters, with some products offering more. 

Examples of products include AT&T's (Dayton, OH) Wavelan, Motorola's (Schaumburg, IL)

Altair, Solectek (San Diego, CA) AirLAN, Windata's (Northboro, MA) AirPort and National

Semiconductor's (Santa Clara, CA) AirShare. There are a variety of frequencies and

techniques used, from infrared to spread-spectrum to near-microwave. Again, the individual

differences aren't as important as the overall functionality that these products offer: the ability

to connect via ordinary LAN protocols users out of the reach of LAN cabling. 

For example, say that your office occupies two buildings that are separated by a few blocks in

a downtown location. You could connect the two via a dedicated line that you lease from

your local telephony company at several thousand dollars a month. Or you could connect the

LAN in one building to the other via a radio link. You buy two of these devices and connect

them to your wired LAN, either in a server or a workstation that functions as a bridge.

Another example is in ad-hoc networking, where you want to drop ship a server and

workstations to a remote site and have them up and running without having to worry about

the cable installation.

The market opportunities for these products are few and most have sold only a few thousand

units overall. However, market researchers Venture Development Corp. (Natik, MA) claim

this was a $200 million market last year, but I wonder how creative their accounting was.

First off, most large corporations won't need very many of these devices, even if they have

hundreds of computers that are already wired. Second, these products are expensive when

compared to ordinary LAN adapters (costing several thousand dollars compared to several

hundred, respectively). Even if you have some way of justifying the cost savings from cabling

(and recabling) your office, they still are somewhat pricey.  These products make the most

sense for rapidly-growing businesses that don't want to invest in millions of dollars of cable

plant in buildings that they will eventually outgrow, leaving all that wire in the walls.

There are other issues for these wireless LANs: First and foremost is throughput. Wireless

networks never obtain the throughput of a wired Ethernet or Token Ring segment, although

they can come close to megabit speeds, depending on the technologies used and the physical

obstacles in-between the transceivers. In our tests of the Altair network, we were unable to

tell the difference between wired and wireless operations, however, so sometimes throughput

can be made too important. 

Second is the support for particular protocols and network operating systems. While most of

the products are indifferent to what network traffic they carry, some are more particular. For

example, Wavelan does not support NetBIOS protocols, while Altair will run any Ethernet

protocol. The critical information to examine is the number of different server operating

systems drivers supported by each technology, since that is usually where these products are


Third is security from intruders. Most wireless LANs can be compromised merely by having

someone nearby with similar equipment. For example, Proxim's RangeLAN (Mountain View,

CA) operates on one of three different frequencies. Choose the right one and you might be

able to snoop about. (There is an optional security ID that can be implemented to prevent

snooping, but it isn't the default.) A few of the products have better security, but corporations

worried about "wirelesstapping" might be better off spending the money on cabling. Finally,

the issue of coverage and range is important. Each product has different ranges and coverage

profiles, and actual mileage (more like footage, since these products don't trasmit very far)

will vary based on building construction and other obstacles. Any serious purchaser should

investigate these issues carefully before buying.

6. Finally, we arrive at various wireless software providers. This category is the broadest, and

covers point-to-point applications, such as Traveling Software's (Bothell, WA) Laplink

Wireless and AirSoft's AirAccess (Palo Alto, CA) as well as a variety of electronic mail

vendors that have enabled wireless transports.

The three largest LAN e-mail vendors (Microsoft, Word Perfect/Novell, and Lotus) all now

have wireless client products that sell for about $200 per client, not including the cost of the

radio modem and monthly network access charges. All three of these wireless email products

run on RAM's network with the Intel Wireless Modem: this is a special version of Ericsson's

Mobidem that is sold by Intel and uses a different set of protocols. None of these products

has sold very well, mainly because it is difficult to provide the necessary wireless

infrastructure and throughput is poor. 

The issues involved here are the kinds of client platforms available, the ease of switching

between wired and wireless communications, and filtering and previewing one's mail. Let's

look at each in some detail for both Microsoft Mail and cc:Mail.

The attraction of these products is the ability to switch between wired and wireless modes of

operation: For example, let's say I am in my office and connected via my LAN to my cc:Mail

post office. I then disconnect or undock my laptop from the network and proceed to go on a

trip. I'd like to receive some of my mail wirelessly when I am traveling, and then when I get

to my hotel room at night be able to connect to my phone line and continue working. How

easy is it to use these products?

cc:Mail's Mobile client uses the same Windows (or Macintosh) client software and user

interface that the non-mobile versions use. It takes just a few mouse clicks to switch

configurations between wired and wireless configurations. 

However, the issue with cc:Mail is where your old mail is stored and how you will carry it

with you. If you use lots of LAN email, you might not want to carry your entire mailbox

around with you on your laptop: either for security reasons or because of the space all this

mail will take up. Lotus has provided a docking feature in the Mobile software that allow you

to move mail between the LAN's post office and the remote computer.  This is somewhat

cumbersome, but it does work -- you specify which messages you want to move when you

come back to the office or just before you want to leave on a trip.

Microsoft Mail is also different: you can store all of your mail on your individual

workstation, unlike cc:Mail. This makes docking and disconnecting from the LAN effortless.

Switching between wired and wireless modes with MS Mail is more cumbersome than with

cc:Mail, however: you have to re-enter all your connection information each time you switch.

Microsoft currently only offers wireless connections with its Windows client. 

Other issues for wireless email involves filtering and previewing messages. Since wireless

connections take longer, you might not want to receive all your mail each time you connect.

cc:Mail Mobile offers a preview feature, and you set the amount of time that a message

header is displayed. During this time, you either accept or reject the message for subsequent

downloading: if you do nothing, the message gets downloaded. With just a few messages, this

can be helpful. For those email junkies that get lots of mail, this could be cumbersome.

cc:Mail also has the ability to filter your messages. For example, you can set your mailbox to

receive only messages that are smaller than a certain size. All others won't be received until

you return back to your office or until you change your filter. This seems like a more useful

function for those frequent emailers: it can run with little real-time attention while you are

receiving your mail.

Finally, Microsoft Mail does have a preview function, but you have to make two connections:

first to obtain your message summaries and then to select the entire message to receive. Any

filtering will require a separate add-on product that Microsoft OEM's from Beyond,

Inc.(Cambridge, MA) and bundles with its Windows client.

As you can see, going wireless is not simple nor straightforward. Both Microsoft and Lotus

have just gotten started in this game, and the overall revenues they expect from the wireless

side of the house will remain a small percentage for many years to come. This means that

wireless email will always be an afterthought for these companies. This could be an issue for

corporations that want to make wireless a mission-critical application.

One place where wireless email is first and foremost is with Radiomail Corp. (San Mateo,

CA), which has the widest installed base of client platforms, networks, and devices.

Radiomail works on HP palmtops, Apple Macintoshes, DOS machines and even is found on

Motorola's new Envoy. It runs either on Ericsson's Mobidem or Motorola's Infotac. The actual

Radiomail software is a simple email client program: it talks to the back-end server at

Radiomail's corporate offices. 

The advantages are that you can purchase all you need from one source and let them worry

about the back-end connections: computers in Radiomail's offices are connected to the

Internet via wired connections. Plus, Radiomail works rather simply: just turn on the radio

modem and bring up your software. There are no phone numbers to dial, no passwords to

remember. Your mail arrives quickly with little effort on your part. It is perfect for the

executive on the go.

If you already use email in your office, your Radiomail account will be a second mailbox. It

costs less than $90 per month for unlimited messages, which compares favorably with other

services. However, the company is small and has never been profitable. Currently Motorola is

funding them and [TK: rumors are they will buy them soon]. Perhaps the best way to try out

Radiomail is to purchase a Dell (Austin, TX) Latitude laptop computer: the DOS software

comes bundled along with the first month's free subscription. 

Like Radiomail, there are a number of other small wireless software-only ventures. These

companies have created a new breed of applications that will only work over wireless

connections and have little or no comparison to any wired functionality. Products such as Air

Soft's AirAccess is typical of this genre. AirAccess is a remote access program, whereby two

DOS computers connected to radio modems (the software supports a variety including

Mobidems and Infotacs) can synchronize and transfer files between them. The computers can

both be mobile -- so that a work group could collaborate on a project without ever having to

be in a fixed office, for example. And the two computers can be in different cities, provided

they can access the wireless service provider.

Laplink Wireless takes a different approach: here the radios operate only a few meters, so

both computers have to be in the same room. However, the purpose of this product is to

synchronize files between a laptop that is taken on the road and a fixed desktop machine. The

cost of this product is $300, which includes both software and two radios manufactured by

National Semiconductor.

Summary. As you can see, the world of wireless data is changing rapidly and has lots of

players. AT&T and Motorola will certainly be in the market for the long haul: wireless is

mainstream business for both communications behemoths. The other and smaller companies

will try to attract business, but it won't be easy: as you can see from our desrcriptions, there

isn't any one-stop shopping experience and it is confusing sorting out what is needed and

figuring out requirements for particular applications. 


David Strom is president of his own consulting firm in Port Washington, N.Y. He writes

frequently for the computer trade press including columns for Infoworld, Communications

Week, and Forbes ASAP magazines. He can be reached via the Internet at david@strom.com.

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David Strom David Strom Port Washington, NY 11050 USA US TEL: 1 (516) 944-3407