David Strom


By David Strom

I am not a big fan of pagers: somehow, I just never wanted to be that connected. And I'm not

a big fan of the Newton/Casio/Tandy line of personal digital assistants (PDAs) either: I'll wait

till the second generation of these products comes out with better software and improved

connectivity. Now put the two together and you have either an overweight pager or an

underfunctional laptop: either way a losing proposition.

Despite this overwhelming cynicism, I wanted to investigate Motorola's latest foray into this

world: the Embarc (the acronym stands for electronic mail broadcast to a roaming computer)

NewsCard. Embarc is Motorola's one way messaging service that has been available for

several years in a variety of devices, including the HP LX and other DOS-based palmtops as

well as Macintoshes. 

The NewsCard, which began shipping last month, is a PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory

Card International Association) card that fits inside a Casio Z-7000, Tandy Z-PDA, or the

Grid 2390. These PDAs weigh about a pound and have essentially the same form factor as

Apple's Newton with two important differences: first, the units run Geowork's pen-based Geos

operating system rather than Newton's OS. Second, they have a set of extra buttons at the

bottom that can be used to scroll around the screen. 

The buttons are actually an important addition, since they enable you to read a long document

(by long I mean anything longer than  the ten lines that fits on the puny screens of these

devices) without having to resort to using a pen. Did I mention that these devices are

designed without keyboards and use handwriting recognizers? Sorry, I thought you all knew

that by now. But let's leave the reports of handwriting accuracy to Doonesbury: in this review

I want to focus on communications.

I tested two different receiver/computer combinations: first was the NewsCard and Tandy's

Z-PDA, otherwise known as the Zoomer. Also, I tried out an older product, the NewsStream

receiver on my Macintosh Powerbook. NewsStream is a bit bigger than the PCMCIA card,

but not by much: it is slightly smaller than a pack of playing cards. I carried both of them on

various business trips around the country as well as used them in my own offices outside of

New York City. 

I'd recommend neither for enterprise computing, although the older NewsStream is a more

fully-developed product than its smaller and younger cousin.

The NewsCard has an external hump that sits outside the PCMCIA slot: this holds an AAA

battery which powers the card and stores messages when the host PDA is turned off. Up to

128 k of messages can be stored on the card, which is four times the storage of previous

Embarc devices. The card can only receive information: there is no transmitter.

Besides the NewsCard, what else works in the Zoomer's slot? According to the

documentation, few cards are supported, something I found out myself. I tried three modem

cards from AT&T Paradyne (Fla.), Megahertz (Salt Lake City), and Data Race's (Tex.). All

didn't work. The AT&T card caused the entire system to shut down, even when connected to

AC power.

Zoomer has a nice way of telling you this sad news: "the card you just inserted doesn't work

in this machine." I guess this is better than spending countless hours trying to re-load

CONFIG.SYS drivers and whatnot, but it still was frustrating. According to the Zoomer

documentation, only external modems are supported, and only those that are independently

powered: the Zoomer doesn't have enough juice to power anything besides itself. 

The way you connect these external modems is via a miniature serial port. Of course, the

cable is not included as part of the base package, which is too bad: more people would be

encouraged to use modems with the product.  The Zoomer also has an infrared port that can

communicate with other Zoomer's. Big deal.

So much for the Zoomer's communications abilities. Let's get back to Embarc. The key word

in Embarc's name is broadcast, or the ability to send one message to many people in one

direction only. This is not quite like electronic mail, which is two-way one-to-many

communications, and not quite like paging, which is one way one-to-one communications.

Let's look at the email side for a moment. Most of the time, when I send email I expect an

acknowledgment: It could be an answer to my question, or a short message saying "Yes, I got

what you sent." That's the nice thing about email: you can continue working at your own

pace, and maintain a conversation over the course of several days.

But this metaphor is out the window with Embarc, because you only have one-way

communications. So you have to think up new uses that don't require acknowledgment, which

is where the broadcast focus comes in. Just like with TV and radio broadcast: the folks at

Channel 2 aren't interested that I happen to be tuned in to "Murphy Brown" on Monday

nights (other than they'd like to convince their advertisers that many families are watching) --

they just promise (Olympics notwithstanding) to have the show ready to go each week.

Let's look at the paging side as well. Embarc doesn't have much to do with paging, really,

and that's both the problem and the opportunity. Yes, you can call an 800 number and tell the

operator to type in your message, which will get to you in varying amount of time depending

on how much you want to pay. But why bother? Carrying a pager is easier and cheaper than

carting around the Embarc card inside the Zoomer. 

To really make Embarc work, you need to start thinking along new lines that take advantage

of the pen-based operating system of the Zoomer, coupled with one-way broadcast messaging.

That's the exciting part of the story: however, I am here to tell you that we are still working

on the introductory chapters.

Someone who has gotten past first base is a Colorado bank service company that uses Embarc

on [WHAT PLATFORM] to send current mortgage rates to its customers. The rates are then

directly downloaded into particular applications that are used to check whether prospective

home buyers can qualify for the loans.  

The more I used Embarc, the more I kept bouncing between the notions of email and paging

and having a hard time visualizing very many applications that could work with the card.

Take our mortgage application for example: to make this work on a PDA, you would have to

do lots of programming and use serial printers to get any output. It may be easier to start off

with a more powerful computer than the Zoomer. It may be easier to develop your broadcast

application using fax machines. And you may want to use one of the two-way mobile packet

radios like Intel's Wireless Modem or a cell phone modem.

What are some of the services you can receive?

Part of the basic package, for $18 a month, includes receiving daily USA Today news

updates. For an additional $20 to $30 a month, you can pick from over a dozen different

offerings that include technology, sports, and general business topics. These get transmitted

every morning between 6 and 7 am  eastern time with various updates sent throughout the

day as news happens. 

There are other offerings as well, and they can easily triple your basic monthly bill.

Individual, Inc. sells a service called HeadsUp, which will automatically search hundreds of

commercial databases (such as Commerce Business Daily, PR Newswire, and the Business

Wire) by certain keywords and send you the resulting matches of article headings. You can

then order the full text of any article that interests you for less than $5 a piece. Reuters sells

an hourly headline service for another $15 a month. 

So with all this news being transmitted over the radio waves, is it something that is a

compelling read? In a word, no. As someone who is an avid newspaper reader over morning

coffee, reading the news nuggets from the McPaper didn't cut it -- and while I didn't

subscribe to any of the extra-cost services, I knew after the second day's worth of news

deliveries that this wasn't going to replace my daily Times fix. 

Part of the problem is that reading a paper is much more comfortable: I had a hard time

trying to squint at a dim LCD display, not to mention having to hit the page down key every

other 10 seconds. Sure, I knew things like who won which Olympic event before most of my

friends and neighbors, but I would have gotten the same information if I had tuned in to the

local all-news AM radio station, and for alot less money and trouble besides. Reading the

news isn't the killer application that will get anyone's attention for either the Motorola device

or the PDA.

What's really needed is the ability to develop new graphical-based applications that take

advantage of the Zoomer's pen-based features. No one has stepped up to this task quite yet.

Until then, reading text is better left for the Macintosh or PC platforms that have better

screens and keyboards to manipulate it.

Using the Mac version

I also tried out the older Macintosh NewsStream version, which while almost a real

Macintosh application (dialog boxes, icons galore, a control panel and pull-down menus),

didn't make the grade either. Why not? First off, it has a Jeykl/Hyde personality: the radio

just receives messages, like the NewsCard. However, Motorola has also fashioned a way to

send messages to the world as well: using a modem. Of course, you have to be connected to

a phone line to send messages. 

I wasn't impressed with the sending portion of the application: RadioMail (San Mateo, Calif.)

is easier to use, and just about anyone's third-party email system (MCIMail, AT&T's

Easylink, Sprint, Compuserve) has a better front end and more options. 

Embarc's biggest obstacle in the traditional messaging department is that it is X.400-based.

The Macintosh software did nothing to help me through the many dialog boxes and

parameters needed to identify myself in X-speak. Now, before you think this is a minor nit,

realize that I've used email for over a decade and am certainly familiar with how to specify

various X.400 addresses on a variety of systems. Motorola could have made its software


To top things off, nowhere in the Macintosh documentation is there any mention of how to

send mail to other users outside of the Embarc system. These gateways are documented

somewhat in the Zoomer manual, although not to the extent that I'd like. And, the Embarc

MCI Mail gateway is unlisted! What exactly is Motorola hiding here? Are they afraid of

crank email messages?

Despite these roadblocks, I was able to send myself a message from MCI Mail, but it took

about an hour to navigate its way through the various systems. Motorola claims this is

"normal" delivery. Sending a message from the Embarc unit to itself took a half hour, which

is also the normal service provided. (You pay more for speeding things up.) I think this

stinks: Embarc is not only fat but slow when it comes to being a pager.  Sending messages is

not an available option on the Zoomer.

Where can you roam?

Motorola claims you can get messages anywhere in the US and Canada. That's nice, given

that few wireless data devices presently operate in both countries. For example, Intel's

Wireless Modem cannot move across the border freely: while the frequencies are the same

and various subsidiaries of RAM Mobile Data operate the networks, users can only use the

modems in one country or another. Too bad.

I turned the unit on during one cross-country flight somewhere over the Midwest and in a few

minutes received my messages. That was very exciting and broke the ice with my seatmate, a

teenager playing with his own PDA: a GameBoy. After trading devices for a few minutes, he

wanted his back: the only games he could find were solitaire and others that offered little

excitement. So much for the under-18 market segment.

Take this kid's lead: stick with Nintendo for the time being, and wait till Motorola improves

the software and others provide solid graphical development tools for the Zoomer. 

Vital Statistics:

Embarc News Card (for Casio/Tandy/Grid PDAs)

$249 (includes software)

shipping since February 1994

Embarc NewsStream (for Macintosh/DOS/HP computers)

$395 to $458 (depending on platform, includes software and cable) 

shipping since 1992

both products: Prices do not include $25 registration fee plus monthly service charges that

range from $18 to $60, depending on services subscribed and messages  

Ready for the Enterprise: NOT (but the older NewsStream product is a better bet)

UP: It is the smallest wireless radio yet manufactured.

DOWN: The PDA is the wrong host platform for this device. Embarc needs to take better

advantage of the graphical Geos environment.

Competitive Analysis:

The NewsCard is the first such device for the PDA marketplace. But enterprise users might

be better off looking at the NewsStream receiver for the larger laptops and palmtops if they

intend to develop their own applications.


Motorola Embarc 

1500 NW 22nd Avenue

Boynton Beach, FL 33426

800 362 2724

801 578 1375 (fax)


Test bed:

Tandy Z-PDA, Macintosh PowerBook Duo 250, several PCMCIA modem cards, email

accounts on MCI Mail, AT&T Mail, and internet.

Click here to return to the previous page

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