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Wireless Palms: What Are the Options?

by John Ochwat
09/01/2000

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Palm Computing's dominant share in the handheld market gives it a comfortable position. But is it resting on its laurels and ceding the technological innovations of this year to other PDA developers?

In the high-tech community, "the buzz has gone off Palm a little," said Jill House, an analyst with International Data Corp. "Luckily for them, the consumer buzz has started to pick up as the tech buzz has worn off." Judging from its big three plays this year (a color-screened Palm, the less expensive M100 model, and the Claudia Schiffer model), Palm's playing to that consumer audience, which is not necessarily a bad thing for would-be Palm developers. But, House adds, "In terms of pushing the edge, forcing the markets to develop, they're a little behind. ... They're playing catch up with the Joneses in terms of technology."

The Joneses, in this case, work at Microsoft. The new PocketPCs (such as the Compaq iPaq) have improved features, such as smooth integration with the Windows desktop, the ability to play MP3s, and bright color screens. Most of all, they support a slide-on attachment that can carry a PC card, which means the handhelds are a wireless modem away from accessing the Internet.

What wireless options can Palm users tap into?

This spring, Palm CEO Carl Yankowski said that by the end of the year, all Palm handhelds will be able to connect wirelessly to the Internet. The top-of-the-line Palm VII has a built-in modem, so users can send and receive e-mail and short messages and browse the Web through its proprietary service, Palm.net. But how does Yankowski plan to get the older models unplugged and online?

Third parties to the rescue

Yankowski's plan looks less ambitious when you consider that, for the most part, it's already been achieved, thanks to third-party modems and services. Of Palm's four product lines, three can connect wireless to the Internet today: Palm VII, V, and III. There's no modem for the recently announced, low-end M100, but Palm's director of product marketing, Jim Kruger, says that one is in the works.

  Modem Wireless e-mail Wireless Web
Palm III

Novatel Minstrel III

Use Go America's Go.Web to access POP3 e-mail or OmniSky's client to access up to 6 POP accounts.

Use Go America or Omnisky to browse optimized sites or open URLs.

Palm V

Novatel Minstrel V

Use Go America's Go.Web to access POP3 e-mail or OmniSky's client to access up to 6 POP accounts.

Use Go America or Omnisky to browse optimized sites or open URLs.

Palm VII

Integrated

Use Palm.net address to send and receive e-mail via iMessenger

Browse "walled garden" of optimized sites. Must have downloaded a .pqa file for each site.

Palm M100

None

None

None

Palm III. There are four models of the Palm III; three of them can attach to a Novatel Minstrel III modem and sign up for service from Go America (a wireless ISP). The fourth model, the color-screened Palm IIIc, doesn't have a modem right now.

Palm V. Both versions of the Palm V can easily be connected to the Internet as well, either through Go America's service or by service from OmniSky (both use a Novatel Minstrel V modem).

Palm VII. The Palm VII has a built-in modem and uses Palm's proprietary service, Palm.Net, to connect to the Internet. Unlike the Go America and OmniSky services, users are limited to browsing a subset of web sites. (More about that below.)

You've got (compressed) mail!

These three services differ in the way they handle e-mail, how they browse the Web, and the type of network they operate on.

Palm VII e-mail. The Palm VII ships with the same e-mail application as the III and V series. This app synchs with your desktop e-mail client through your synch cradle (connected by a cable), downloads incoming messages from it, and uploads outgoing messages to it.

The VII also ships with an application named iMessenger, which Kruger says is "meant to be a short messenger application." The goal with the Palm VII, Kruger says, is to have a simple, out-of-the-box experience for the user, with no configuration. ("Out of the box" in this case means take it out and use it, not think outside of the box to set it up.) Users who buy a Palm VII also sign up for the Palm.net service and receive a palm.net e-mail address.

Other e-mail (either IMAP or POP3) can be accessed by sending it through iMessenger, and if it's a POP account, Kruguer says "if (the server) exposes a connection, then you would be able to access it through something like (third-party solution) ThinAirMail"

Palm VII users send mail via their palm.net address, but can specify a different reply-to address if they want.

OmniSky lets you access up to six POP3 accounts, and you can send mail through those accounts. OmniSky's e-mail client features filtering and message topping, which displays the first 500 characters of a message, with an option to get the rest. OmniSky product manager John Hanay says their research suggests the first several screens of a message is often as much as people want.

Palm.net's walled garden

Palm.net and OmniSky differ only slightly in how they handle e-mail, but the difference browsing the Web is much greater.

While OmniSky and Go America theoretically offer access to any URL on the Web (except for sites dependent on Flash or Java), Palm.net's reach is something more like a walled garden.

The Palm VII net doesn't retrieve whole Web pages, but relies on web clipping, which retrieves pared-down data from the servers. Palm's Kruger says web clipping is more efficient for a handheld computer, designed to minimize the number of clicks needed to get at something, as well as to alleviate the frustration of long downloads over a slow, wireless connection onto a small screen.

To access sites on the Palm VII, you need to install (or build and then install, if no one else has built one for that site), a Palm query application (the file extension is .pqa). "You have to have someone to architect this," says IDC's House. "It's standard HTML, and it's not a big deal, but you still have to do it." Palm offers the web clipping development kit for free on Palm.net.

"We conducted focus groups to ask people what they want," Palm's Kruger says. "Web clippings today probably cover 98 percent of what they want." He adds that that there are third-party applications for open URL browsing, but "they don't work really well."

House likens the Palm.net experience to joining a gym. "When you buy access to a gym, you have access to the equipment in that gym, but if they don't have treadmills, then you don't have access to them. Similarly, if Palm.net doesn't offer access to Wired magazine or Amazon.com, then you can't access it." (Luckily, it does.)

"That's why it's klugey," she argues. To date there are over 425 Web clipping apps there for the downloading. But House says that compared to how many sites are out there, "It really doesn't seem like that much."

OmniSky: off-roading on the open web

Plans and pricing

(As of September 1, 2000)

• Go America's Go.Lite costs $9.95 per month for the first 25 kilobytes of data, $0.10 for each additional kilobyte of data on the CDPD network, and $0.30 for each additional kilobyte of data on the Mobitex network.

• The Go.Unlimited plan costs $59.95 per month for unlimited access with all supported devices except the Palm III (i.e., Palm Vs. They also support RIM Blackberry machines). Get a Minstrel III wireless modem for the Palm III and you can use Go.Unlimited for only $49.95 a month.

• The OmniSky modem costs $299.99, and unlimited access is $39.95 per month. OmniSky was offering a $150 rebate on the modem/service in August as a promotional special.

• Palm VII service plans range from the Basic Plan for $9.99 (50 kilobytes) to $44.99 for the Unlimited Volume Plan.

OmniSky's service relies heavily on sites optimized for Palm, too, but it also offers users the ability to surf any URL.

"We want that walled garden (the number of sites optimized for handhelds) as big as possible," says Chris Weasler, OmniSky's director of content, adding that there are over 1,000 sites available through the OmniSky portal that have been optimized for handhelds.

OmniSky will also help sites develop handheld-friendly sites, either through leveraging what they've already done, using a product from Aether systems called Scout Web to set up a developer template, or by referring sites to third-party web-to-wireless ASPs such as Everypath, ViaPhone and 2Roam.

"We don't want to fence our users into that (the so-called walled garden)," Weasler says. "There will be a time when you have to get to that other information. Our users may only want to access 10 or 20 sites on a daily basis, but they don't want us to pick those sites for them."

The networks

Palm.net runs on the Mobitex network through BellSouth Wireless Data, a slightly older network technology that, according to Andrew Seybold's Wireless Roadmap, has a maximum throughput of 8 Kbps.

OmniSky runs on a CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data) network that tops out at 19.2 Kbps twice as fast, in theory. Palm.net and OmniSky both offer fixed rate plans, although Palm originally started out charging per kilobyte.

One other advantage that OmniSky's Weasler touts is that their network runs PQAs on the server side, "which allows us to aggregate a ton of content without a memory footprint on their device." Since these devices have considerably less RAM than desktops or laptops, that's a big advantage to a content provider, because any time they want to update or change their applications, they give it to OmniSky, and users get it automatically.

Two remaining questions

First, why is it that Palm's high-end model, the Palm VII, offers a lesser web browsing experience than its older models? Simple: the Palm VII was the first integrated wireless solution for getting onto the Web, at least in North America.

While it still doesn't allow open Web surfing, it was a trailblazer for the wireless web. IDC's House notes that, although they lost money on it, "for the market it was a good decision. It jump-started the wireless web market for everyone and made it sexy." The third party solutions that came after were able to improve on it.

Second, if all but two Palm models already access the Internet, why would Yankowski bother to set wireless access as a goal at all?

"What Yankowski was referring to is the Mobile Internet Kit, which is coming out before the end of the year," says Palm's Kruger.

The Mobile Internet Kit -- Dataquest's McGuire calls it a "combination software patch" -- is a CD with a WAP browser, web clipping, and an e-mail client. It also allows users to access information via infrared beam or through a cable that would connect a Palm device to a wireless phone. It's not an easy, out-of-the-box solution, but it's targeted less at consumers and more at mobile professionals -- especially international travelers.

However the future struggle between Palm and PocketPC plays out, one thing is for certain: wireless connectivity is a must for both platforms. "Wireless communications or a full-blown web session or some variation is what's going to make this class of PDAs something more than a couple hundred dollars to replace five dollars worth of paper," McGuire says. "That what makes them grow in the long term."

John Ochwat is a former editor for Upside magazine and contributes to numerous tech publications.


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