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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Taking the Fun Out
Overall, the product provides good support for most of AIMs functionality. Groups are key to organization here. If youve set up your buddy list with up to six groups (corresponding to the six main navigation buttons on the device), youll be rewarded with streamlined access to your buddies. If you have more than six, those remaining online are thrown into an ad hoc “Other” group. In contrast, Apples iChat application doesnt support groups at all.
You can use and create custom Away messages, send warnings, and even engage in multi-user buddy chat. The product is responsive to buddies coming online and leaving offline, and you can have up to six simultaneous IM sessions going. An LED lets you know if you have a waiting message. From there on, youll mostly be switching among the group and buddy soft-buttons, and the “Whos On” and “Talk” buttons.
However, as much as I wanted to like the IMFree, using it was just not a good experience. The keyboard is mushier than “Maid in Manhattan” and the display has some of the dimmest characters youre likely to see on a screen until the release of “Dumb and Dumberer.” Worse, you have to keep angling the device so that it catches the light because there is no backlight; thats a deal breaker. Also, forget about such nice mobile text tricks such as acronym dictionaries or auto-capitalization.
More importantly for Motorolas intended target audience, the IMFree dispenses with any of the cosmetic amenities—garish as their usage often is—such as fonts, sizes, and colors. Kids frequently use these expressive elements. The IMFree offers partial support for smileys; it offers on-screen graphical shortcuts to send them, but displays only their textual equivalents in context.
Of course, some things had to be sacrificed to get the retail price to $99.99, and its hard to justify a higher price for a dedicated AIM device, particularly one that doesnt roam beyond the house. As Ive discovered, though, at least some people are very interested in taking their computing experiences around the house. So, if Motorola moves forward with the concept, it would benefit by improving the basics of input and output. After all, how well can anyone AIM in the dark?
Is an inexpensive home-bound cordless product the key to instant messaging or just an instant mess? E-mail me.
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