New Homing Pigeons: Hand-Held Personal Communicators

When the telephone industry introduced cellular phones a decade ago, businesspeople rushed to get one. Everyone understood why it would be handy to make voice calls while on the move. Now the computer industry is trying to sell a similar gadget for electronic mail. It's called the personal communicator.

Will the business world go for personal communicators the way it went for cellular telephones? Should the average computer user get one? To find out, I had Motorola send along its two latest personal communicators, the Envoy and the Marco.

Think of a personal communicator as a miniature computer with an antenna. You hold the machine in one hand and a pen-looking gadget in the other, then you jot down notes by writing on the computer screen or point-and-click your way through simple programs, such as a daily planner or a spreadsheet.

They work like the personal digital assistants that Apple Computer has touted for years - but these are wireless. The same way you can make a cellular phone call from anywhere, you can send an electronic message over the Internet. Or zap a fax to your boss.

Of the two devices, I preferred the Envoy. When you turn on the machine, it scans the wireless service (mine was called RadioMail) and downloads messages waiting for you. You can send out messages the same way. It's all wireless, of course, so you can do this almost anywhere: in a conference room, or, as I did, from a roadside table in central Pennsylvania.

One reason the Envoy is easy to use is its operating system, which comes from a company called General Magic. The opening screen is a drawing of a desktop where all the activities are laid out. There's a card file for looking up addresses, a calendar for appointments, in- and out-boxes for wireless messages, and so on.

I found the other machine, the Marco, harder to use. That's the one I had at the roadside table in Pennsylvania. It took me 45 minutes there to figure out how to send a wireless message to a friend in New York. Such complications are surprising. The Marco is based on the Newton personal digital assistant from Apple, which makes the easy-to-use Macintosh desktop computer.

Maybe the reason the Marco is more complicated is that it tries to do more. It can recognize handwriting, for example, as does the Newton. The Newton's initial mistakes in recognizing handwriting a couple of years ago were so trumpeted in the press that most people pooh-pooh the idea. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Marco could decipher my hand-printed scrawl and turn it into typewritten letters.

So far, neither machine is powerful or flexible enough to meet the needs of the general computer user, especially for $900 to $1,500 - plus message fees. They're stripped-down computers, able to do only a few functions well. If you're a traveling executive who needs to be in constant contact with your electronic mail, these devices make sense. But I suspect most of us check our Internet mail, at most, once a day or a few times a week.

So it probably won't matter if our Envoy-toting friend sends his message wirelessly at 2 p.m. or from his desktop computer at 4 p.m. Either way, I won't read it until the next morning. After sending the wireless message to my New York buddy, I tried him on the phone. He got my voice-mail message long before he got the Internet mail.

All this could change as these devices become more popular. One day, electronic mail may take on the urgency of a pager message or a telephone call. Until then, I'd save my money for a cellular phone.

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