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Communicating Wirelessly with the HP 200LX

Communicating Wirelessly with the HP 200LX

There are a number of wireless services that work with the Palmtop -- how do you know which one is right for you?

By Frank P. Nagle

Ever since I first had the HP 95LX, I've looked for the "perfect" communications system. The 95LX provided me with the ability to use an external modem to connect to a phone jack and communicate with the computer systems at work and with CompuServe. It also gave me some Internet e-mail capabilities. This was a big step up from having to use a desktop or a "luggable" computer for these functions, but the Palmtop's serial port was not 100% compatible with a standard serial port and the Palmtop could not connect with all modems.

The HP 100LX and 200LX improved on the communications ability of the Palmtop, and came with a more standard serial port that worked with a wider range of external modems. In addition, the 100/200LX came with a more standard PC card slot that could accept a wide range of PC Card modems. It became easier to use faster, more portable modems with the HP Palmtop, but you still had to physically connect up to a phone line.

Wireless communications and the HP Palmtop

During the past year and a half I've been "beta" testing wireless communications software with the Palmtop. I first tested an Ericsson Mobidem (wireless modem) along with a wireless e-mail software and service from Wynd Communications. The Mobidem is a small, external wireless modem that is used primarily with laptop and desktop systems, but also works with the Palmtop.

Wynd was developing the System Manager compliant wireless communications software for use on the HP 200LX. I approached them at a conference held in San Jose, California and indicated my willingness to work with them on any beta tests they had in mind. I purchased the Mobidem modem, and was provided beta software by Wynd. Now I was wireless!

I normally received my e-mail via Microsoft Mail on my desktop computer at work. I was able to use an add-in product with my desktop to re-direct incoming mail to my wireless account. I had my mail forwarded to my Wynd account, excluding messages with attachments. I excluded attachments since they tended to be spreadsheets or Word documents. These documents are very large and take a lot of time to transmit, costing me more in service charges. In addition, I rarely need them on my Palmtop. This setup worked quite well, and provided me with access to e-mail anywhere, anytime.

In addition to my full time job, my wife and I have a financial services business. In the financial services business it is important to stay on top of market information to provide up-to-date information on investments. I was able to subscribe to a stock quote service on the Internet (contact www.quote.com). This service provides closing prices sent automatically at day's end. It also will alert me when the prices of specific stocks reach high or low "trigger" values that I preset. In one particular instance it alerted me to one stock in my portfolio reaching a preset high. I called call my broker and had him sell a portion of my shares, resulting in a nice profit for me.

Along with this service, I also use another provider for reporting mutual fund closing prices (contact: www.galt.com) and receive nightly e-mails on the selected funds in my portfolio, and the portfolios of some of my clients. This allows me to monitor the mutual fund prices, and even send the data to Lotus 1-2-3 on the Palmtop, for graphing and price "trending."

AllPoints wireless modem smaller and more portable

After using the Ericsson Mobidem for about six months, what had at first seemed so small and portable was looking and feeling more and more like a "brick." I was ready for the next, smaller generation of wireless modems. In February of 1996 this finally arrived in the form of a Megahertz (US Robotics) AllPoints wireless PC Card.

AllPoints is a modem and wireless transmitter/receiver built into a PC Card. It has an external bulge on the end that sticks out of the Palmtop's card slot. This bulge holds a 9-volt battery that provides power to send and receive messages, and a small antenna. I no longer had to carry a "brick" around!

I currently use Wynd communications with the AllPoints Wireless PC Card and continue to receive nightly data on stocks and mutual funds. In addition, I changed my full-time day job and now work for Hewlett-Packard as a manager in their Software Information and Delivery Organization (SIDO) in Mountain View, CA.

The mail system we use at work is cc:Mail, which also lets me create a set of rules for forwarding my e-mail to my Palmtop's wireless service. I have e-mail less than 10K in size forwarded to the Palmtop. A message is sent to my Palmtop alerting me when a larger message is waiting on my desktop. This is enough to remind me that I have "work" to do back at my desk. This current system works well, letting me access e-mail no matter where I may travel in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as most major cities in the U.S.

Wireless "limitations" not so limited after all

My wireless system only provides e-mail access, but quite a bit of information on the Internet can be accessed via e-mail. List servers and automated response systems can provide quick and easy access to a lot of text information. In addition to the nightly transmissions of stock information, I sometimes send a request via e-mail to service@quote.com. I enter the word "quote" on the subject line of the message, along with the ticker symbol for a specific stock. In a few seconds I receive the current trading price for the stock (stock price delayed 15 minutes).

In addition to the "interactive response mode" described in the stock price example in the previous paragraph, I put myself on "lists" which keep me informed about various items. One such list, "The Top Five List" (which can actually contain much more than five) sends me a dose of humor each day. To subscribe send e-mail to top5@walrus.com with SUBSCRIBE as the subject line. To unsubscribe you send UNSUBSCRIBE as the subject.) Subscribe to a list service and you'll automatically receive e-mail on the service's topic (in the above example, humor). Keep in mind that wireless communication is more expensive than communications over phone lines. Along with monthly base charges, there are per message or character charges, for all transmissions. You may want to keep your monthly service costs down by having list services send their messages to your desktop computer.

Another wireless approach shows promise

The wireless communications I've described so far provide coverage in most majorU.S. metropolitan areas using a network of radio transmitter/receivers maintained by the messaging service or an affiliate. Another newer form of wireless is now offered on a more limited basis by Metricom, Inc. The service, called "Ricochet," uses smaller transmitter/receivers positioned throughout a much smaller area (a city, a college campus, a industrial facility). Messages are sent via a special wireless modem. (For more on this system, see page 17 of this issue.)

This system can provide a full Internet access. I've used the "dial" option to link to traditional wired sites. This dial option is an added cost over the basic service, but provides me access to a shell account on a local provider where I can pick up larger messages that I can have forwarded there or connect to as if I had "dialed in."

The current wireless modem used with this service is external to the Palmtop (about half the size of the Mobidem, thinner and a little lighter). You can use it for 4-6 hours with a full charge of its nickel metal hydride battery. The range of this modem is limited to the immediate area of the service, and is available currently in the Bay Area (San Francisco / San Jose, CA), Los Angeles, some selected college campuses, and soon (I believe), Washington, DC.

Colleges where the network is fully installed include:

  • Austin College (Sherman, TX)
  • California Polytechnic (San Luis Obispo, CA)
  • Oregon State (Corvallis, OR)
  • Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA)
  • University of California at Berkeley (Berkeley, CA)
  • University of California at Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz, CA)
  • University of Miami (Coral Gables, FL)
  • University of Oregon (Eugene, OR)

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Colleges where the Metricom network is to be installed include:
  • Indiana University (Bloomington, IN)
  • San Francisco State University (San Francisco, CA)

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The next generation of wireless communications needs to provide full access to Internet services. Metricom's Ricochet service is a step in that direction, but they need to expand coverage to other top metropolitan areas to make that capability more widely available. The price of their service was the best of all the services I tested.

Other services -- which one is right for you?

RadioMail, a comparably priced competitor of Wynd Communications, offers wireless messaging service over the same geographical area as Wynd.

SkyTel is another option. Although SkyTel describes its coverage as "nationwide," more major/minor cities seem to be covered by Wynd and RadioMail than the current SkyTel roll out. SkyTel has a transmitter/receiver that works with the HP 200LX and provides limited receive and send capability. It is my understanding that SkyTel has a message size limit. You may send a full message, which then will be broken down to accommodate the message size of the pager receiving the message. As with other services, SkyTel's cost is a base monthly charge, some amount of "free" messaging, and then a charge for messages above the base rate. SkyTel's two-way coverage area may not be as complete as the RamMobile network used by WyndMail.

When making a decision on what is "right" for you, you need to take into consideration the following points:

Availability -- RadioMail WyndMail and SkyTel are available throughout most of the U.S., Metricom is available only in a few cities and college campuses.

Cost -- Base charges which may include a certain number of free messages per month, plus a cost per message after that number has been reached (check with service).

Priority of Messaging -- How fast does the message have to be sent (check with service).

Size of Messaging -- Do you need to send small, brief notes, large text files, or attach binary files? (check with service).

Size of Equipment -- The palmtop, AllPoints Wireless PC Card is the "smallest" combination. Others require a small external wireless transmitter/receiver.

As for me, I'm waiting for the next level in wireless, a Ricochet PC card modem with world wide coverage!

Until then -- happy wireless communicating.

Pricing and Contact Information for products mentioned in this article

iPhone Life magazine


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