Motorola Brings Buddies to Your Bedroom

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin commends Motorola's IMFree for reviving the wireless instant messaging appliance, but thinks the company erred with cost-savings sacrificing usability.

Kenny Loggins, that bearded bard of all that is footloose, called it when he sang in his eponymous song Im Free (Heaven Helps the Man), "Heaven helps the man who fights his fear." The prescient pop star must have foreseen the wireless appliance turn of events that would transpire between two semiconductor giants nearly 20 years later. At the height of dotcom dizziness, Intel Corp. dipped its toe into a wide array of consumer electronics. Among the toy microscopes (now marketed as part of the Digital Blue line) and MP3 players, Intel was planning to release a 900 MHz wireless chat pad that was previewed at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show. However, Intel got cold feet and hastily exited the consumer electronics business, killing its wireless chat pad.

Now Motorols has picked up Intels baton, with a couple of major differences, the most important of which is that its had the courage to ship the device. Like the Intel prototype, the curvaceous IMFree or MX240a uses the 900 MHz band and requires a PC and its own gateway software. However, the handheld IMFree is much smaller than Intels prototype, which included a full-sized keyboard and somewhat resembled the AlphaSmart 3000.

Conceptually, the IMFree is a cousin of the MailStation line of wireless e-mail appliances, now offered by EarthLink, but the IMFree requires no monthly fee. While the MailStation tends to be sold to seniors, the IMFree targets chat-happy teens; how many of these dont have their own PC, though, especially in broadband homes? Aesthetically, it might pass as "my first Blackberry" although its important to note its range is limited to its own proprietary base station. The device it probably most resembles is one of those small label makers with the squishy keyboards. Taking a cue from the mobile phone world, the IMFree can supposedly accept faceplates, but no custom ones are yet offered.

Setting up the IMFree is generally easy, although I had to access the online help once during the process to find the location of the base station ID (under the base station). While logging would be a nice additional feature, the software allows the ability to activate and deactivate multiple devices, some buddy list editing, and even the ability to connect via modem, although the device will likely appeal most to broadband homes and indeed stems from Motorolas broadband group.

The IMFree was apparently designed to connect to potentially more than just AIM, which is listed as just one of its possible services on a menu. Once you connect (amidst a series of shrill tones that will remind old-timers of those early LED-based electronic sports games from Mattel and Coleco), youre treated to the IMFrees Spartan interface.

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