Joe Clark: (E-mail)

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h1>Mobile E-mail

[Originally published 1994 |
Updated here 1999.06.27]

While schlepping around a laptop computer, complete with modem, is a well-accepted means of exchanging E-mail with the office back home and with the Internet, the niche market occupied by ultra-compact personal digital assistants (PDAs) like the Apple Newton MessagePad has brought electronic messages to devices scarcely the size of a VHS tape. That doesn't mean it's easy to handle those messages: Although PDAs' shortcomings in, say, handwriting recognition are well-known, conventional laptops are under no threat from PDAs in the domain of electronic mail, which remains cumbersome and circumscribed for hand-held machines.

A whole host of vertical-market applications can be found in "pen computers" from makers like Fujitsu and Grid, but Apple's Newton MessagePad 120 is the closest thing to an off-the-shelf retail PDA. E-mail is built into the Newton system software: Its NewtonMail can exchanges messages with other Newtons and with Apple's eWorld service (in English or French, depending on the system version). With the right accessory on a desktop computer, you can upload and download mail via an infrared connection.

That is about as convenient as Newton E-mail gets. To zap a message back to a head office's CCMail, FirstClass, QuickMail, or other corporate system, or to send an E-mail to a commercial online service like CompuServe or America Online, you need additional software, a modem, usually a "landline" connection to a standard telephone jack, and a willingness to accept limitations. For example, Black Labs Inc., a small software developer in Boulder, Colorado, markets FirstClass Retriever and CIS Retriever (for SoftArc Inc.'s FirstClass E-mail system and for CompuServe Information Service, respectively). Both those Newton products limit you to simple text only; no file attachments, even if those attachments are purely text, are supported. You also don't get graphics of any kind-- an unsurprising limitation for a machine whose pixels are either black or white, with no shades of grey.

Black Labs president Doug Swartz estimates that only two to four percent of MessagePad owners use any kind of E-mail other than NewtonMail. "Initially," he says, "Apple did not emphasize the communication capabilities of the Newton, for some reason, so there are lots of people who use Newton as pocket organizers" and for little else.

Similar limitations are in place with Aloha, Catamount Software's E-mail retriever for the wildly popular America Online service. Aloha works only when offline (i.e., you cannot be connected to AOL to read and compose mail) and is restricted to simple textual E-mail-- none of AOL's many Internet newsgroups and AOL-specific conferences are available. (Those aren't frills for nerds: The Internet is home to dozens of newsgroups on computer and other technologies which could be of use to a PDA owner on the go.) File attachments are out of the question, too-- a serious limitation with AOL, which automatically segregates large E-mails into attachment files whether the sender opted for that or not [a limitation no longer in force].

True Internet E-mail is another source of frustration. Qualcomm Inc.'s popular and respected Eudora E-mail software does come in a Newton version, but that software can exchange messages only with Eudora Light or Eudora Pro running on a Macintosh or a Windows computer. A direct connection to the net, while theoretically possible, is difficult due to a lack of a TCP/IP "stack" (akin to Apple's MacTCP or Winsock on a Windows machine) in the Newton's system software. A TCP/IP stack, enabling the Newton to speak the underlying communication language of the Internet, won't be available until 1996, according to Apple Canada Inc. sources, and point-to-point protocol (PPP) software to allow dialup connections to the net will appear even later.

And in bilingual Canada, the Newton TCP/IP stack will face another limitation-- it will be in English first, and only if France decides to "localize" it will French-Canadian Newtons sport the feature.