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Email2go: battle lines and reviews

Simon R. surveys the scene

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Email has become a major part of daily life. It is now such a common form of communication you really do suffer if you can't get your email when you are away from your computer. Text messaging helps fill the gap, but only for socialising-it isn't the same kind of business communication as an email.

A device in your pocket which handles email properly is clearly something that will make a difference to your life. Done well it can be as big a difference as your first mobile phone.

The ability to check email on the move has been possible for some time now. The Sony CMD-Z5 was the first phone to do this over a year ago, but in the meantime there have been some significant advances.

Key to this is GPRS, the always-on data service. It means that data transfers are faster, because with GPRS the device can easily check to see if there is any mail waiting. Because it is always connected checking is quick, and because you only pay for data transfer, not by the minute, costs are kept down. It costs very little when there is no mail and is cheaper per megabyte when there is mail.

GPRS is the enabling technology that will make mobile email as common as text messaging. The other element is the hardware. Getting email is all very well, but you can only really make use of your time if you can reply easily. A phone with email is useful because you can read the message and then call the person who sent it to you. Of course it's possible to compose a reply in the same way as you would send a text message, but emails usually need forwarding to a number of people and to have bits of the original text quoted. This is awkward on a standard phone. With a device which has a full keyboard or good handwriting recognition you can use commuting time for communicating.

What's going on?
To understand what makes any of these devices work you need to learn a bit about what goes on behind the scenes with email.

The first important acronym is POP3. It stands for Post Office Protocol version 3. Think of it as being like a PO Box for your email. If you have a PO Box you have to go along to the post office to see if there is any post in your pigeon hole. POP3 is like that on the internet. A computer that sits somewhere collecting your mail. Outgoing mail is handled differently. It goes through an SMTP server which is connected to the service provider you are using to make the connection.To get your mobile device to work you need to know all the right information for both sending and receiving.

This all assumes that your mail is POP3. If you have a Hotmail account you can only access through a web browser. Web browsing through a mobile connection is painful. Orange makes a good fist of it with High Speed Circuit Switched data but you will need to use a device which supports this and which has a web browser. That means a computer or PDA attached to your phone or a Nokia 9210. It will also cost you up to 25p a minute and still feel horribly slow.

A better solution for Hotmail users is Pogo, the cool web browsing device. Currently only available on a Fresh tariff from Carphone Warehouse it costs 10p a minute to run but works pretty well.

Hotmail tends to be used by individuals. The major corporate market is very different. It's very security conscious and tends to have complicated servers with firewalls. You may well not be allowed to access your mail there without having a device that has been sanctioned by the company IT department. For this market there are systems which integrate with Lotus Domino or Windows Exchange Server such as the RIM Blackberry.

In between the Web browsing Hotmail user and the corporate user is the vast majority. And there is a lot to choose from. In part you need to decide what works well for you and in part you need to look at how you set up your email. If you are an organised sort of person you can set things up so that you only divert your mail when you cannot reach your computer. This cuts down the mobile mail bills considerably. You may choose to have a separate account for your mobile device. If you do this people will only be able to reach you if they know your mobile email address. Ideally you need to be able to copy all your email to both the mobile device and your desktop computer.

There are two ways you can do this. Either have both to access the same POP3 email box but to leave a copy on the server, or to copy mail that arrives in your POP3 box to a second POP3 box and use that for your mobile device. Again the solution is dictated by both the way you work and the hardware.

You might choose to pick up all your mail on the PC and only copy across when the PC is switched off. To do this you delete the mail on the server if it is accessed by the PC but leave it on the server from the mobile device. This assumes the PC checks for mail more regularly than the mobile device. If your PC uses a modem and the mobile device has GPRS this isn't necessarily the case. GPRS is always-on, so email can trickle into your pocket and alert you when its there. You don't sit and wait for it to download.

Synchronisation and backup

These are devices that start to run your life. If you think how devastated you would be if you lost your mobile phone with all the numbers in the SIM, imagine if you lost your whole diary, email contacts and phonebook. The need to back your data up means all the devices do it. You can also synchronise data, so if you have 1000 names and email addresses on your PC you don't have to type them into the mobile device.

Microsoft Outlook is pretty much the de facto standard so despite there being lots of committee based standard, chief among these SyncML, you tend to end up synchronising with Outlook. To get devices to synchronise you need to install the custom driver which is fine if you do it once, or even a couple of times but if you have a number of devices and use a serial connection they can clash.

To synchronise with a Nokia 9210 you have to uninstall Psion series 5's Psiwin. Handsprings and Palms use the same Hotsync which works exceptionally well with automatic synching when you press a button on the cradle-or in the case of a Treo on the cable. Windows CE devices like the Trium Mondo and Sagem WA3050 use Microsoft Activsync. Again this works very well at handling both program installation and synchronisation. Motorola phones and the Accompli A008 use Truesync from Starfish software which can be temperamental.

The ideal is that you don't sync with a cable but do it over the air using GPRS. Unfortunately this is very much a 'coming soon' feature. Expect devices like the Sendo Z-100 and mm02 XDA (in the shops this spring) to support Microsoft Server Activesync.

The website Fusion One which specialises in synching PCs-so that your home and work machines can have the same contacts, appointments and filing systems-has a SyncML system in beta test. When it is publicly available you will be able to use it with a Nokia 9210 to keep your mobile and PC in step. More details at www.fusionone.com.

Operating systems

There is a war going on out there. Officially the battle lines are Microsoft Vs Palm Vs Symbian Vs other systems. By other systems the contenders are proprietary operating systems often running Java Virtual Machines and Linux. And if all that is gobbledegook to you don't worry. What it means is 'Can I buy additional programs to run on my connected PDA'.

In theory if a program is written for an operating system it will work on all the connected devices which run that system. Just as you can buy the same Windows program for a Dell or Compaq PC, so you should be able to buy a Symbian program and run it in a Nokia 9210 or Psion series 5. In practice this isn't yet possible.

At the moment, if you want an integrated mobile device with a lot of software the Palm is the best choice. But that is set to change. Expect the first Microsoft Smartphone 2002 phone, aka the Sendo Z-100, to be available some time around April. Microsoft is keen to get its developers to produce custom applications for Smartphone 2002 and have made it easy to convert programs from Windows CE.

For Symbian read Nokia. The biggest mobile company in the world, able and smart enough to stand up to Microsoft. Symbian is a consortium of Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson-represented by the new SonyEricsson joint venture. Between them they represent something like 80 per cent of the phones sold. Other interested parties include Toshiba and Siemens which have licences for both Microsoft and Symbian software.

If you are buying a device today it doesn't matter much, just don't expect the device to be up to date for long.

Traditionally people have replaced their mobile phones about once a year. PDAs like iPaqs and Psions have had a lifespan of around three years. Expect the advances in technology and ease with which you can move your data to bring PDA replacement to something closer to one year. Compaq is even trying the car manufacturer trick of 'this year's model' by having devices with minor improvements come out each year.

If you have a particular application in mind you should look for which platform it runs on and then choose the device. So a wine waiter will find that there is more in the way of Wine Databases for a Palm OS than for Windows and should go for a Handspring Treo rather than a Trium Mondo. In time the battle will settle down to being one between Microsoft and Nokia, but that should not dictate what you buy today.

Expansion

The computer world learnt a long time ago that taking the lid off the box and being able to add bits the makers never intended was key to success. It's what made an Apple II better than a Commodore Pet. The mobile phone world hasn't learned this yet.

The Nokia 9210 takes MMC memory cards and the Sagem WA3050 has an add-on which will let it take cards. Compaq has a flexible system with expansion jackets but unfortunately to add mobile communications you have to use a jacket and so you can't have more than one at a time. Most disappointingly the Handspring Treo doesn't support the Springboard modules used by other Handsprings so you can't add a camera or MP3 player to a Treo.

What is needed is a single format for adding peripherals. The emerging standard is SD I/O. This uses cards which look like the MMC cards used by the Nokia 9210 and Siemens SL45 as memory cards but lets them do more than just memory. Palm has a Bluetooth card and you can expect digital camera add-ons. Only Sendo has announced plans to support SD I/O.

Email2Go reviews

Blackberry RIM
Handspring Treo
Motorola A008

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