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 smarter. 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) firstname.lastname@example.org Test bed: Tandy Z-PDA, Macintosh PowerBook Duo 250, several PCMCIA modem cards, email accounts on MCI Mail, AT&T Mail, and internet.