Travel back to the early 1990s. Wireless e-mail was one of the telecom industry's hottest prospects. What Sand Hill Road venture capitalists lacked in enthusiasm, corporate leviathans more than made up for in zeal to forge strategic relationships. Wireless e-mail wasn't just a business opportunity; it was going to change your way of life.
E-mail and wireless communications were growing by leaps and bounds. If time is money, it could only follow that people would be willing to pay more to get their e-mail sooner.
Seven or eight years ago, wireless e-mail looked like a second chance for those who weren't present at the birth of Apple Computer, Intel or Microsoft -- but wished they were. They knew -- or thought they knew -- that wireless e-mail would be big. Perhaps they were wrong; they certainly were early.
Wireless e-mail isn't next-day delivery. It's right-now delivery. This mail isn't delivered to your home or office; it's delivered straight to you. If you want it fast, it's interactive. If you don't want it fast, it waits until you're ready for it. Motorola's Embarc (Electronic Mail Broadcast to a Roaming Computer) paging group even saw itself competing against Federal Express.
THE EARLY DAYSOne of the first wireless e-mail solutions to hit the street was RadioMail. Founded in 1988, RadioMail provided a service that was personal and fun. The thousand or so early adopters used RadioMail in ways they couldn't use a wireless phone or desktop PC. With written language as the medium, they were communicating not just person-to-person, but intellect-to-intellect.
Many wouldn't think of going anywhere without their RadioMail pouches. Inside, there was a Hewlett-Packard HP95LX palm-top computer and Ericsson or Motorola radio modem. Holding the open pouch with its Popsicle stick antenna flipped up became the RadioMail user's trademark.
You could send RadioMail messages from just about anywhere. Geoff Goodfellow, RadioMail's flamboyant founder, claimed he started the company because he wanted to be able to send and receive e-mail from the beach. Goodfellow's slogan conveyed the promise of RadioMail: Instant gratification.
Instant gratification it was. If your RadioMail kit was turned on, you heard a beep the moment a message came in. You could check your e-mail and even fire off quick responses while waiting to board a plane. If you reached another RadioMail user whose kit was turned on, you could engage in a near-interactive session.
Although RadioMail provided instant gratification for users, it was not so kind to the company's private investors. Beyond a tiny core of determined users, there were few takers. Most business travelers either didn't know about RadioMail or simply preferred to retrieve e-mail while relaxing in their hotel rooms.
Wireless e-mail gradually was enhanced. RadioMail added a gateway that allowed mobile users to send text messages to fax machines anywhere in the world. Suddenly, you could send messages to business people who still didn't have e-mail. Plus, the RadioFax banner with its lightning-bolt logo imparted a sense of urgency to messages, which often were hand-carried to their intended recipient.
Another firm, Wynd Communications, set up a gateway that could translate your typed message into synthesized speech. Now you could send a message from a moving taxi to anyone with a telephone.
CONTINUED EVOLUTIONBut e-mail began evolving in ways that made RadioMail, WyndMail and competing solutions increasingly difficult to use. The original RadioMail system forwarded all of your e-mail to your wireless terminal. Long messages were divided into several smaller messages or simply cut off. Eventually, wireless e-mail services were modified initially to forward only the e-mail headers, perhaps indicating the message source, size and subject and letting the user decide which messages to retrieve over the relatively slow wireless link.
As e-mail use mushroomed, the volume and size of e-mail messages increased. Users who want their e-mail ASAP tend to be heavy users. Many heavy users receive dozens of e-mail messages per day, often with file attachments. It makes more sense for mobile workers with ARDIS, BellSouth Wireless Data, CDPD or alphanumeric paging service to use wireless for sending and receiving short messages and merely to be alerted when you receive longer messages.
Today, wireless e-mail has become almost synonymous with alerting. After all, the reasonably ubiquitous wireless data services only run 4.8kb/s to 19.2kb/s, a big chunk of which is consumed by protocol overhead. Thus, wireless e-mail typically runs four to six times slower than a high-speed dial-up modem (38.4kb/s to 56kb/s). Just receiving e-mail headers can be a chore when inside a building.
Fortunately, help is on the way. Although wireless equipment vendors talk about 2G+, 2G++ and 3G systems enabling exotic capabilities such as wireless video, the market sweet spot may be supporting more mundane applications such as wireless e-mail. Offering speeds of 64kb/s to 384kb/s, wireless suddenly jumps out in front of the dial-up modem, which is unlikely to become much faster. In fact, if wireless operators can provide 128kb/s service at landline prices, wireless could start replacing dial-up modems for Internet access.
The first wireless e-mail solutions turned out to be dead letters, but the promise is still alive. Someday you may be able to telecommute from the beach. Then your boss will have a compelling application for wireless video -- remotely peering over your shoulder.
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© 2013 Penton Media Inc.
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