OmniSky: The PDA Cellular Connection

OmniSky: an idea that works when the PDA's UI doesn't interfere.

As much as you may love your laptop, the real weapon of the road warrior is the PDA. A laptop may let you set up a temporary office in a hotel room, a coffee house or—in a pinch—an airplane seat; but it still requires a chair, a desklike surface, and time to start up. If you want to work while walking down the street, standing in line, or riding a crowded bus, then its palmtop time.

As such, PDAs cry out for a wireless WAN solution even more loudly than laptops do. While most environments conducive to laptops offer dial-up or LAN access options, tethering a PDA to one spot with a landline eliminates its primary advantage.

For the moment, one excellent answer lies not in any cutting-edge technology, but in an old, well-established one: the cellular phone. Most PDAs can establish a dial-up connection over a cellular network using a process nearly identical to traditional landline dial-ups.

With a specialized modem, most PDAs can access the Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) network. CDPD utilizes the existing cellular network infrastructure but enables Internet Protocol packet-based data transmission.

There are a number of CDPD products available for palmtop use. These include PDAs with built-in modems and cell phones, cell-phone/modem plug-in expansion hardware, and kits for connecting palmtops with traditional cell phones.

We recently tested two plug-in products from Novatel Wireless Inc., using service from OmniSky Corp. The Minstrel V modem plugs into the Palm Vs serial port (usually used for "hot syncing"); the Minstrel S uses the Springboard expansion slot on Handspring PDAs.

Both models performed admirably when it came to core functionality. To us, the killer app for these products is clearly checking e-mail, and both modems served that function well, providing relatively quick "mail alert" checks and an "e-mail waiting" light that functions even when the PDA is powered down. Wireless instant messaging (via Yahoo Messenger or AOL Instant Messenger software for PalmOS) also proved useful in some situations, as did certain wireless Web applications.

However, core productivity functions are extremely limited compared with a laptop. Why? Its the user interface. While reading incoming e-mail is relatively simple, composing outgoing e-mail—or, worse, instant messages—is extremely slow, and severely taxing on the wrist and fingers.

Connection speed is also a significant limitation. The CDPD supports a maximum of 19.2Kbps; we typically saw between 5Kbps and 12Kbps in practice. Tricks like Web clipping and e-mail header loading optimize the experience, but theyre still too slow to make Web surfing or monitoring high-volume e-mail accounts on the PDA practical.

Wireless PDA solutions provide several very useful functions, but they sure dont live up to all of the "wireless Web" claims youve heard. But for receiving that one crucial e-mail while outward bound for Tokyo, theyre one handy, little tool.