David Strom

Windows Wireless Email: Beyond Beta

By David Strom

You've got enterprise-wide networks that connect your branch offices, you've got electronic

mail to communicate with your peers around the corporation, and you've got mobile users

with laptops that dial in when they are on the road. You are reasonably satisfied with this

arrangement, except for one not-so-small item: your users need to find RJ11 phone jacks to

get connected and retrieve their email. I am talking about wireless email. Wouldn't it be nice

to free yourself from this silver-satin slavery?

Yes, it would. It is a wonderful experience to be able to send electronic mail from just about

anywhere and become productive in places where no RJ11s are to be had -- such as taxis,

airports, and office waiting rooms. I've been untethered for over a year now, and it is a great

and almost intoxicating feeling being able to carry on with my correspondence and take care

of business when on the road. For a traveling executive that spends lots of time in airports

and cabs, wireless email can be addicting. 

However, just like other types of addictions, it can be costly to maintain the habit. Depending

on your own skill set and tolerance for the hiccups around new technology, it may or may not

be worth it. There is a lot of work involved in configuring the software and negotiating

among the various vendors involved -- it is far from being a one-stop shopping experience.

Finding a wireless radio signal when you are away from major downtown areas is sometimes

not possible, depending on where the radio transmitters have been installed.  Finally,

switching between being wireless and wired is not easy, either. There are some times, such as

when you want to move lots of data, when you'll want your office LAN-connection or when

you'd rather use a standard dial-up phone line to send your messages.

What Products Are Available?

The products involved usually have two separate pieces: a part that is installed in each mobile

client which includes drivers and other software, and a part that is installed in the server or

post office, which receives calls from the mobile users and sends messages to them over a

radio network not unlike the cellular phone system. 

There are now three products that are available for Windows-based wireless email software:

versions from Lotus' cc:Mail, Microsoft's Mail, and AT&T Mail for its Easylink mail system.

All three make use of the wireless network from RAM Mobile Data and require you to use an

Intel Wireless Modem, which is about a pound and the size of a small brick. The Wireless

modem is battery-powered (one lasts pretty much all day, depending on how many messages

you send), attaches to your computer's serial port and uses special Hayes AT modem

commands to connect over the radio network.

Other products are available, including CE Software's QuickMail and Performance System

International's PSILink, software for Macintosh and DOS clients, respectively. Both Lotus and

AT&T Mail will also have Macintosh wireless clients as well. What about Word Perfect?


Finally, there is RadioMail, a wireless email product that is available on DOS, HP LX

palmtops, and Macintoshes. Unlike these other products that integrate into your existing

corporate email systems, RadioMail is its own beast. This means, for example, that users of a

cc:Mail network will require a second mailbox if they want to use RadioMail. RadioMail also

uses different wireless modems -- the original or "classic" Ericsson Mobidem which doesn't

make use of the AT command set that is part of the Intel-branded variety.

On the server side for cc:Mail and Microsoft Mail, you'll need to connect them to RAM's

network as well. This can be done with a special server version of the Intel modem (it has an

AC adapter instead of a battery, so that it can be left on continuously) or by connecting the

mail server into the network via a standard x.25 line. AT&T's Easylink has taken care of the

server side for you, so all you need is their client software to get wireless. 

I looked at three products: Microsoft Mail (which began shipping a wireless client last fall),

cc:Mail (which began shipping a new Windows client last month called cc:Mail Mobile for

Windows) and AT&T Mail, which has had a Windows wireless client since last fall. For the

cc:Mail and Microsoft Mail servers, I used machines that were already installed and running

at existing corporate sites. (As a side note, you'll need to consider where these machines are

physically located: the closer to the window (the kind you see through), the better the radio


In previous Beyond Betas, I've looked closely at single products. In this review, I take a

different approach: I look at just the wireless components of the products and what is

involved in getting them set up to enable untethered email. I assume you have already made

your email product decision based on other factors than each products' wireless features. I

recommend all three [two?] products ready for the enterprise, with the caveat that you prepare

yourself for some careful testing and pampering of your traveling users. 

What to buy?

Buying wireless email isn't easy nor simple, with the exception of the AT&T Mail product.

The packaged products are actually offered from Intel and include a variety of hardware and

software. The AT&T package is the only one that includes all the software you need to get

going and the wireless modem. With the others, you have to become Sherlock Holmes and

investigate the fine print.

For example, the Microsoft and cc:Mail packages from Intel come in two different flavors:

there is the remote or client side and the server side.  The only difference is the AC adapter

for the server modem -- the client side includes two batteries. Neither package includes the

actual email software, which you'll have to get separately from either Microsoft or Lotus.  

Once you get your package, you'll have to activate your modem. The software to do this is

inside all of the Intel packages. Again, think of a similar process with activating a cellular

phone. This software is from RAM, since it is their network that you run the radio signals

from the modems on.

This software is one of the weak links in the process. It captures your billing information

(name, address, and VISA number) and then it dials (well, perhaps some other word would be

best, but then phones don't have dials anymore either) up another wireless modem back at

their offices and transmits the information. You have a multiple-screen legal agreement that

you have to page through (let alone read with your lawyer looking over your shoulder) as part

of this activation process. It took several attempts to get activated when I purchased my

modem last October. 

Using the wireless features of these products will cost you more than just making an

equivalent long-distance phone call: the pricing model to keep in mind is similar to a cellular

phone, where you have to pay for both originating and answering sides of the conversation. 


RAM's current prices offer several options, depending on usage: again, very similar to various

cell phone plans. Unlimited usage, the most expensive, is $135 a month and the lowest

pricing tier is $25 a month. This seems reasonable given what you get.

What about performance?

Connecting with wireless radios will be slower than moving data via telephone links, no

doubt. In my tests, which consisted of sending and receiving various file sizes and types, I

found that the effective throughput was somewhere south of 4800 bps, and sometimes closer

to 1200 bps. (The actual rated speed of the Intel modems is 8,000 bps.) As they say in the car

commercials, actual mileage will vary, and boy does it. To understand this, you'll pardon a

slight digression into physics.

Throughput depends on three things: packet size, available bandwidth, and the strength of the

radio signals between the base station and the wireless modem. Only the first is a fixed and

known entity. RAM uses 512 bytes. The smaller the packet, the more overhead required and

the longer the amount of time it takes to move data across the network. 

Bandwidth is a function of how many other users are competing for radio connections in a

given geographic area, something that the networks monitor closely and fine-tune

continuously. Those of you with cell phones in New York and Los Angeles know exactly

what I mean about this competition for bandwidth by how often your calls are interrupted or

how many busy signals you get. Right now, RAM has lots of idle capacity, however.

Finally, there is signal strength. This is tremendously site-specific, determined by the

transmission power of the device, the physical proximity of the user's modem to the base

station, and any obstacles in-between. Objects such as buildings or natural obstacles such as

mountains and valleys can block signals, and other radios nearby can create interference. This

means that if you are in the interior of a large office building, you'll get less signal than if

you were standing outside. And, if you are located on the tenth floor overlooking downtown,

you'll get better signal than if you are at ground level. (This is the reason for the advice on

server location earlier: you might have to move it or connect an antenna to the radio modem

to get a better signal.)

The wireless modems supported by RAM currently use two watts of power to transmit their

signals, less while they are receiving or idle. If all three items are working together, the

maximum system throughput will be obtained. Otherwise, users will be faced with

re-transmissions and throughput decreases.

Consider the situation where a user is driving over a mountain and using his or her car phone.

Cellular coverage can be spotty in these areas, and calls can be interrupted or even

disconnected in these situations. So it is with wireless data, decreasing throughput from

thousands of bps to a few bits per second trickle in these geographically undesirable

locations. I found the Hertz model (the car company, not the frequency measurement) worked

best to anticipate signal strength: I received the best service at airports and in downtown

locations, and less in rural or remote suburban locations. With one noticeable exception: my

office, a mere 25 miles from Manhattan, gets crummy signal -- I'm in between several base

stations, and have to use a booster antenna similar to what is found on a car's cell phone. 

Enough of the physics lesson. Let's get back to the actual products themselves. One of the

improvements is that the operation of the products is almost the same between wired and

wireless. You perform the same steps, you use the same menu options. Wireless is slower, but

not an (entirely)  different way of life. 

For example, when we connected using the "on-line" mode of AT&T's Access Plus, we were

able to type in commands as if we were a VT-100 terminal to AT&T's Easylink computers.

Sure, I only received a screenful of information at a time and sure it paused for a few

seconds before giving me the next screen, but otherwise everything that I could do as a wired

terminal I could do wirelessly. That's nice.  

How do you switch between wired and wireless?

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?

First, AT&T Mail is not a LAN-based solution: you are always connecting to their mainframe

computers that host the service. However, switching between wired and wireless involves

nothing more than changing the modem driver that you are using. It takes about three mouse

clicks and you are done. You use the same mailbox, the same commands, the same window

menus. This, combined with the fact that the AT&T package from Intel is a complete solution

(and one of the least expensive) is reason enough to give it serious consideration. There are

three main drawbacks: the user interface is still a leftover from the days of DOS, most of the

people that you probably communicate with are on other email systems (unless you work for

AT&T) and the manuals could use a bit of freshing up as well. It is ugly, but it works.

cc:Mail Mobile is the newest of the three and it shows. It uses the same Windows client

software and user interface that the non-mobile versions use. It takes a few more mouse

clicks to switch configurations and it is a bit more complex, but it has a much nicer user

interface than AT&T's software. In any event, it is much easier than what you had to do with

the older DOS versions of cc:Mail: they were very cumbersome to use with the wireless

modems. You had to enter all sorts of connection information (such as your wireless modem's

ID number and the ID number of your server) each time you wanted to switch between wired

and wireless connections.

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.

MS 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. Part of the

reason for the difference between Microsoft and Lotus has to do with the desktop focus of

Microsoft. I am a bit nervous about having all your corporate email on individual

workstations, however: that's a lot of mail that we all know isn't being backed up. So you

might want to resolve how you will backup this data first. I wasn't successful getting the MS

Mail client up and running in time for this review, however. Part of my problem is that

nowhere in any of the Microsoft documentation is the wireless connectivity option even


What about filtering and previewing?

AT&T Mail Access Plus offers the ability to preview your waiting messages and then decide

which ones to download. By selecting "preview" from one of the menu options, you connect

to the Easylink service and download just the headers of your email. The software maintains

your connection while you select which ones you'd like to receive (just a simple mouse click

is all that is needed). Once you pick which ones you want, you  get the full message

downloaded during the remainder of this session. That's the theory. In my tests, I had trouble

getting the preview function to work with the wireless modem. Sometimes it wouldn't

connect, sometimes it would. This is from the same computer sitting in the same spot. Ah, the

joys of wirelessness!

cc:Mail Mobile also offers a preview feature, and this works a bit differently. 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. There are other more complex filtering rules, such as only looking at

messages from particular senders or with particular subject keywords, but I didn't test this.

Finally, Microsoft Mail doesn't have a preview function, and any filtering will require a

separate add-on product that Microsoft OEM's from Beyond, Inc. I didn't have time to test

this feature, but it seems that it has more sophisticated filtering routines that available from


Wouldn't a cell phone be easier and cheaper?

Maybe a better solution for unthethered email would be to use the cellular network and

cellular modems. Maybe. There are several issues that need to be resolved:

-- automatic roaming. The nice thing about the RAM network is that you can roam around the

US. and work without doing anything. There are no special codes to enter, no one to call

ahead and say that you are about to land in Minneapolis and activate your account -- which is

the case with the cellular phone network. 

-- modem attachment. The Intel modems have a DB-9 serial cable that attaches to any laptop

serial port. While it is a special cable (the other end that fits into the modem uses a special

RJ45 configuration), it easily connects between any wireless modem and any serial port. The

same can't be said about cell phones and modems, which require special (and typically

expensive) cables that are specific to the phone.

-- battery life. The Intel modem's battery usually lasts for many hours of air time: indeed, it

usually outlasted the life of any laptop's battery (typically two or three hours). Cell phone

batteries are less potent.

-- congestion. Cell phones share the same networks with millions of voice users. RAM is

strictly for data. The only times I experienced any congestion problems were at special

occasions when lots of wireless modem users were gathered in the same room. 

-- connection reliability. Many cell voice calls get dropped due to a variety of situations.

While I have had trouble getting a connection on RAM with all of the products in this

review, once I got a connection I was connected for the duration. Plus, with cell phones you

need to maintain the connection during the duration of the call: with the packet-oriented

network of RAM, you are only sending packets of data. 

Now, you should know that the phone companies have gotten together and have made lots of

noise about the availability of their own packet data network. However, this is just getting

started, with service only available in Las Vegas and the San Francisco/San Jose areas.

-- cost. Finally, there is the cost issues. With RAM, you can pay a fixed fee for unlimited

messages, something not currently an option for cell phones. This has lots of appeal for

corporate managers who want to cut a purchase order for a years' worth of service, and not be

surprised by a huge cell phone bill at the end of a particularly chatty month. It is possible to

pay less with using a cell phone for data, but it would take some discipline.


As you can see, there is a lot to learn about wireless email and how it gets configured.

Nevertheless, the new software from Lotus and the efforts that AT&T and Microsoft have

placed here are beginning to show some fruit. If you have the time, can justify the added

expense of the wireless connections, then I recommend you look carefully at these products. 

-end of main bar-

Vital Statistics:  Wireless Windows EMail

common features:

-- ability to send and receive email via either wired or wireless connections

-- native Windows implementations

-- uses RAM Mobile Data network (various pricing plans, including $135/month unlimited,

800 662-4839) 

-- uses Intel Wireless Modems ($795?), available from Intel directly at 800 538 3373, x1252

Ready for the Enterprise?  YES, provided you give your users lots of care and support

Test Bed:

Dell 486/D50 desktop running Windows 3.1, Intel Wireless Modem, Intel SatisFAXtion wired

modem, and various email client software. Used cc:Mail and Microsoft Mail servers at

pre-existing sites.

AT&T Mail Access Plus for Windows version 2.5

Shipping since September 1993

Price $210 (just software)   $647 (package includes software and Intel modem, from Intel



5501 LBJ Freeway #1015

Dallas TX 75240

800 242 6005

no email and fax??

UP: Easy to switch between wired and wireless, nice single-session preview function 

DOWN: User interface is the pits. You'll also be using gateways to other systems (Internet,

Sprint, MCI Mail).

Competitive analysis: 

UP: Only one of third-party email service providers that offers both wired and wireless


cc:Mail Mobile for Windows 2.01

$195, $95 upgrade from existing cc:Mail users

Lotus Development Corporation

800 El Camino Real West

Mountain View, CA 94040

415 335 6400

800 448 2500

415 960 0840 (fax)

shipping since February 1993

server software required:  Router v4.0 or later

UP: Nice job on user interface, making it look like LAN version

DOWN: Moving mail from LAN to mobile computer a bit clunky

Competitive analysis:

Best feature set and user interface of the three products.

Microsoft Mail Remote for Windows v. 3.2


shipping since SEPTEMBER 1993 ??

1 Microsoft Way

Redmond, Wash

800 426 9400



server software required: v. 3.2 or later

UP: Mail can easily remain on individual laptop

DOWN: No preview mode.

Competitive Analysis:

The cc:Mail mobile client has more features. 

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