A Sync Cradle in the Sky

eLABorations: Handhelds remain hobbled by memory and power snags, and a wireless services hodgepodge

The reigning watchword for hand-held devices is wireless, and its easy to see why.

The Internet has altered the way we compute thoroughly enough to relegate network-disconnected computing to second-class status. As handheld devices grow up into increasingly capable (and costly) mobile computers, the dependence of these devices on a desktop cradle for fetching fresh data such as corporate e-mail messages seems more limiting and annoying each day.

The problem is that while handheld computers are indeed growing more brawny, enough memory and power restrictions remain to prevent them from accessing data resources as notebooks can. Even if they could, the current patchwork of wireless services cant yet manage to deliver the sort of reliable network connectivity we expect at our desktops.

Desktop e-mail redirector products, like the one that Research in Motion provides for its Blackberry devices, can help bridge these gaps by offering devices a sort of sync cradle in the sky.

Combining client software on the desktop with a hosted transport service, this type of product can be a boon for companies that wish to provide their workers with access to their mail, but that opt not to deploy a synchronization server in-house.

However, the popularity of desktop mail redirector software is probably driven just as much by individual users looking to grab their messages without the help (or blessing) of their IT departments—a problem for companies trying to tighten their grip on sensitive corporate data.

Ive been testing two such e-mail redirector products: Handsprings TreoMail Corporate Edition, which has been in beta for a few weeks now, and Infowaves Symmetry Pro for Pocket PC 2002, which is available now in a preview version.

Both products are currently in free trial periods, and Infowave has announced that the Asymmetry Pro service will cost $20 per month—in addition to wireless connectivity fees. Handspring will also charge for Treo-Mail, but it has yet to announce prices.

With its Treo, Handspring has begun a precarious shift from the low-margin, low-end organizer market to the potentially much more cutthroat realm of smartphones and communicators. The Treo, unlike so many of its eventual rivals, is shipping now—a feat made possible by deferring the release of the Treos RIM-style mail access and GPRS functionality to mid-2002.

The beta version of TreoMail that I tested pumped out my Exchange messages to Handsprings servers, where I could fetch them using a mail application that runs on the Treo. TreoMail also works with POP3 mail, but does not support IMAP.

I could set the Treo to check for new messages automatically, or I could request to be notified via SMS when new messages were ready for download.

Based on the performance of the TreoMail beta, I think that the service can do a good job serving the needs of individual users, but for companies weighing this sort of desktop client/hosted service system for multiple users, the Treo-only focus of TreoMail will prove too limiting.

Infowaves Asymmetry Pro (which I tested with Compaqs Pocket PC 2002-powered iPaq 3870 and an AirCard 555 modem from Sierra Wireless) works much as TreoMail does, but supports both Palm OS and Pocket PC devices.

In addition, I could set Asymmetry Pro to send me daily task and calendar summaries based on the data in my Exchange profile. This is a nice feature, considering that most redirector products lack any sort of access to non-mail groupware data.

The biggest annoyance I experienced with both of these products can be traced back to the king bugbear of wireless devices to which I alluded earlier: the tangled state of todays wireless data services.

Pending a GPRS update later this year, the Treo lacks always-on network connectivity. I had to spend about a minute dialing up for Internet access each time I retrieved messages with the Treo. With the iPaq and the Aircard 555, which operates on a 2.5G 1xRTT network, I still had to dial up. This is because Verizon, my 1xRTT provider, bills by the minute rather than the megabyte.

Always-on capability isnt so great when what youre on is a billing meter—a lesson I thought wed already learned from dial-up Internet on the desktop.

What does it take to make your handheld computer more productive? Drop me a line at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.