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? [TK] 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 signal.) 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 mentioned. [TK: IF I GET IT WORKING, I'LL CHANGE THIS PART.] 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 Lotus. 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. Summary 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 directly) <
> 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 connections. 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 $195 shipping since SEPTEMBER 1993 ?? 1 Microsoft Way Redmond, Wash 800 426 9400 fax email 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.