It's easy to look at amazing new technologies coming down the pike and get carried away with the innovation of it all. Here come the BlackBerry and the Sidekick II, and--bang!--we have e-mail on the go and in the palm of the hand. On the horizon, we see Nokia's N770 Internet Tablet, with its promise of convenient Web browsing on a sub-$400 device that's large enough to read and small enough to carry around to any Wi-Fi hot spot. And then there are all the smart phones we've been hearing about. Oh, brave new world that has such products in it.
But there lurks a nagging question in the back of my mind. Are any of these new products as revolutionary as the introduction of the Penguin paperback book 70 years ago? The technology of the Penguin paperback wasn't very impressive at all--it was a cheaply bound book that got pretty scuffed after a single read. But the publisher got so many things right, that didn't matter. The content was right: current, quality literature from popular authors such as Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway. The price was right: sixpence, which was the same price as a pack of cigarettes. (Note: First-run trade paperbacks cost at least twice as many death sticks in today's market, and that's after 70 years of tobacco tax hikes.) And they were available right where you needed them: at railway stations and chain stores instead of just bookstores. The combination of convenience, cost, and content fostered a generation of book-collecting readers out of a group of library-going book borrowers.
Paris Hilton pimped her Sidekick II for a while, which made people aware of the thing, but did it actually create a sea change in the way we handle e-mail? I'd say not.
By contrast, devices that try to take Internet-surfing e-mail junkies away from a desktop or notebook computer have failed to register much of a blip in sales or public awareness. Certainly, the profile of some of these things is pretty high: Paris Hilton pimped her Sidekick II for a while, which made people aware of the thing, but did it actually create a sea change in the way we handle e-mail? I'd say not.
So do any upcoming products have a chance of changing the way we do our online thing? Let's have a look, shall we?
Postage stamp e-mail
E-mail is probably the most compelling reason to get online while you're away from your desk. Cell phones have already put our phone number at every street corner and cafe table we frequent. Text messaging has added the idea of the written word. So the next step is to get our regular desktop e-mail in our pockets. BlackBerry and Sidekick both do this, but they're just not convenient enough. Setting up multiple e-mail accounts on these isn't as easy as it ought to be. Browsing long lists of incoming mail is a real thumb-spraining experience, as is drafting a reply on the tiny QWERTY keyboards.
But that's no reason to dismiss e-mail by phone. In fact, for the past month I've been experimenting with a cell phone e-mail application that really does the job. Voice Genesis's Vemail is a service that aggregates your mail from any number of e-mailboxes and delivers it to your cell phone with a long scrolling list of senders and subject lines. You can scroll through up to 50 new messages and call up any urgent message quickly. And it's much easier to set up collection from multiple mailboxes than it is using desktop e-mail software such as Outlook Express. The software provides a pick list of ISPs, including AOL, and Web-based e-mail providers, such as Yahoo, Hotmail Pro, and Gmail. All the POP and SMTP server settings are taken care of; you just enter your username and password. The whole application is also password-protected, so anyone borrowing your phone can't hack your e-mail.
Better yet, there's a thumb-strain protector built into the program: You can reply to e-mail with voice messages. Your correspondents get a link in their reply that whisks them off to Voice Genesis servers, where they can play the reply using a regular browser and media player. They can even download the voice message, if you're in particularly good voice that day. The service costs about five bucks a month on top of a regular cell phone bill and is available on the networks of Verizon Wireless, Alltel, Cellular One, and a few others. Later this year, when the client software is available in a Java format, the number of carriers will no doubt increase, along with the number of phone models that support it.
As a veteran sufferer of several mobile browsing solutions, I have to say it: the Web just ain't mobile enough. I've tried to make sense of browsing with V Cast and mMode phones, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled Axims and iPaqs, and it leaves me wanting more every time. The screens are too small to make sense of the pages I want to visit.
And forget about entering a URL. They're hard enough to get right on a regular keyboard. Don't bother trying to add a tilde, a colon, and an underscore using a handheld pen computer or a mobile phone. I haven't suffered so much frustration with a keyboard since a handsaw nearly took off my thumb and I had to type with my right hand in a splint.
The Web just ain't mobile enough. I've tried to make sense of browsing with V Cast and mMode phones, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled Axims and iPaqs, and it leaves me wanting more every time.
For people in range of a Wi-Fi hot spot, the Nokia N770 Internet Tablet could be a real boon here, with its large browsing and data entry screen. And the thumb keypad on the upcoming Pepper Pad should facilitate typing URLs in a tablet-based browsing experience. But that's still relying on Wi-Fi access rather than real roaming capabilities.
I guess the real paperback moment for mobile Web browsing is still in the future. I'm holding out hope for something based around the much-touted third-generation (3G) cellular technology and its promise of wireless broadband data services on mobile phones. The promise of anything from 144Kbps to 2.4Mbps service is tempting, ranging as it does from three times the speed of landline dial-up to almost cable-modem speeds.
But that'll have to wait for at least a year. At present, 3G is not exactly pervasive. Many new models of phones are able to support it, true, but only two carriers offer it in the United States (Verizon Wireless and Cingular/AT&T Wireless), and it's been rolled out in fewer than three dozen cities. Great if you happen to spend your entire life in one of those cities, not so great otherwise. And the prices are way off the Penguin paperback pack-of-smokes scale at an incremental $15 to $25 per month. With anticipated service in "most major markets" by the end of 2006, maybe 3G will provide the platform for a really compelling mobile browsing experience. But it'll take more than a 3-inch-square screen and a phone keypad for text entry to make it as convenient as a paperback.
Is cell phone e-mail really so convenient? Does your handheld hold its own against your notebook in the surfing stakes? How is your 3G browsing experience? Let Matt Lake know your Web acceleration tips in the TalkBack section below.