- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

If you think the only way to get wireless messaging combined with a personal organizer is to go out and buy a Palm VII from Palm Computing, think again. If you own a Palm V or Vx, you can unhook yourself and be as free as you like.

For the past several weeks, I've bulked up an IBM WorkPad c3 (Big Blue's version of the PalmV) with a $299 wireless modem and service from OmniSky Corp. of Palo Alto, Calif. (www.omnisky.com). While the combo doubles the thickness and weight of the Palm V, it sure beats scrapping your current PDA and buying a new one merely to add wireless communications.

But, as they say, wait, there's more, particularly if you sign up by Jan. 31. The OmniSky package delivers not only the modem and unlimited use (until April 2000 when the regular service terms kick in); it adds a host of neat features and a very nice improvement on the Palm interface. Put together, it's a rather enticing package for the businessperson-around-town or the politico needing to stay in touch with staff. Users who sign up now will also get a 15 percent "lifetime discount" on the lowest published monthly rate for the OmniSky service.

OmniSky's service is built on several components. First is the Minstrel wireless modem from Novatel Wireless in San Diego. The modem has a place for the Palm V to "dock," and is secured with a small spring clip. The Minstrel device uses CDPD (cellular digital packet data) communications technology, which is provided to OmniSky users by four different carriers: AT&T; Wireless Services, GTE, Ameritech and BellAtlantic. The software runs only on the Palm platform for now (Windows CE devices, pagers and Internet-ready cell phones are future development goals) and requires a host PC running Windows 95 or Windows 98.

Then comes a raft of software that adds so-called "Web clipping" to the device, letting you read portions of Web pages as well as those tailored for the wireless service, including special versions of ABCNews.com and MapQuest. You can use any of the "Palm Query Applications," or PQAs, that are out on the Internet for downloading. Among the ones I've noticed is one to locate the nearest Starbucks and another to bring up Bible verses in a flash.

But the key feature for the OmniSky service is e-mail, and here the device would appear to outshine the Palm VII in a couple of respects. Where the Palm VII requires users to employ an address on palm.net to receive e-mail, the OmniSky approach is to let you use the POP3-based Internet e-mail accounts you already have (at the moment, that excludes AOL) and retrieve and answer mail normally. This cuts down on confusion I wrote to you at xxx.com and you're replying from yyy.com? and makes for easier retrieval of e-mail, since you are not going through an additional step. (A Palm VII can be configured to work similarly with third-party software.)

The integration of the OmniSky Mail program with the Palm address book is excellent: When you create a message and click on an icon representing the address book, all the e-mail addresses are available for use instantly.

During use, the OmniSky modem and service performed as well as a Palm VII if not better in some circumstances. Coverage in my test area of Los Angeles was excellent, both inside buildings and on the road. With four companies providing wireless service, it shouldn't be difficult for users in most major cities to have clear and reliable access to the service.

There are a couple of "bugs" which might trip up novice users. It's important vital, really to follow the explicit instructions for installing the OmniSky software on both your host PC and the Palm V unit. The setup process takes about an hour, and care in installation is vital. Also, if you switch host PCs during your use of the OmniSky service (something most users won't encounter), reinstalling so that you can synchronize the two units is a bit more daunting. During my test, I had to basically "wipe out" the Palm V's memory (after backing up my data) and thoroughly reconfigure the unit when switching main PCs; the OmniSky people are working on making this process easier.

Also, people who like to stuff their organizers with tons of little programs and information may wish to acquire the Palm Vx, which features four times the memory of the Palm V 8 Mbytes should accommodate most needs.

These expanded wireless capabilities are made possible in part because OmniSky uses Aether Intelligent Messaging technology from Aether Systems of Owings Mills, Md. The service "is optimized for wireless applications and provides device and network independence," OmniSky says. (It should be noted that both Aether and Palm Computing's former owner, 3Com, have invested in OmniSky.)

I've long maintained that wireless data will emerge as the next big frontier in mobile computing. OmniSky's well-designed, solidly performing add-on for the Palm V is a welcome step along the way to untethered access to the information you need during a busy day.

Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002, send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page (https:// www.markkellner.com).

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