Wireless IM: Two great tastes together

Wireless instant messaging: Something old, something new.

Wireless is indisputably the future of communication as we know it, thanks to the immediacy of the data it delivers: Knowledge is power, and the speed at which that knowledge can be delivered is intrinsic to its value.

And when it comes to immediate results, wireless connectivity paired with the new wave of instant messaging represents a dynamite combination that leaves old-school e-mail correspondence in the dust.

E-mail is a delayed form of communication, but an excellent one at that. E-mail is relatively fast, easy, and incredibly useful. For example, I don't have a lot of spare time to hang on long phone queues with my computer-related technical-support questions, so I don't call them much.

Nine times out of 10, however, dropping a quick and concise e-mail to support@vendorname.com yields the results that I'm looking for.

Ever call someone hoping to get his or her voice mail because you just want to leave a brief message without having to discuss what you did over the weekend or how things are going at work? I feel the same way about e-mail: It's one-way communication, and while the benefits are innumerable it's still a delayed form of communication.

Whether you are wired or tethered, instant communication is both cutting-edge and utterly traditional. Cutting-edge in the sense that the current wave of ICQ and instant messaging hysteria has rocketed onto the scene at a velocity I didn't expect. Traditional because IM is uncannily like making a telephone call.

Instant messaging has become the communication medium of choice in our organization, where 1,800 feet separate two main offices and thousands of miles separate contributors from around the globe.

I never fancied myself a user of IM until my company opened a satellite office. While it's only up the street, a quick IM to a colleague can often get the answer I need without the treachery of voice jail or the wait for an e-mail response.

Furthermore, I've discovered, the killer platform for IM is wireless. IM is similar to Short Message Service (SMS) in Europe: It allows you to send and receive messages with colleagues in seconds as opposed to minutes, or longer, with e-mail.

While e-mail is undoubtedly cool on a wireless handheld, it really only needs to be backward compatible with existing technology. Long-winded e-mails are simply not suited for a device with a pen-based input device. And until we have real-time, accurate voice recognition for PDAs and WAP devices, they won't be able to replace an Internet device with a full-size keyboard.

IM, however, is perfect for wireless Palms because it is designed from the ground up to be immediate and concise. Although beta technology at best, IM for wireless Palms is today's killer app. Unfortunately, the choices in wireless Palms are still limited. The first wireless Palm that I got to experience was the Palm VII, but its limited Web-browsing ability forced me to look at the Palm V/OmniSky combination as an alternative.

So far, the Palm V/OmniSky service has been excellent -- the e-mail functionality is good; the Web browsing is good (considering the limitations); and the IM functionality is, dare I say it, great.

For those who've been living in a cave recently, America Online Inc.'s Instant Messenger (AIM for short) is a free service used by more than 64 million people to stay in contact and communicate with one another instantly.

You can send instant messages to anyone who has signed up for AIM or subscribes to America Online or CompuServe 2000. If the person is online, he or she will get your message immediately. In fact, if you know someone's screen name, and he or she set their machine to launch AIM when they log on, you can even tell when they come and go. A little Orwellian? Perhaps, but the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.

AIM is wildly successful because it is free (you do not need to be an AOL subscriber to use it); it is easy to use; and it has critical mass, since you want to use it if your friends and colleagues are using it. AOL's marketing prowess alone allows the company to saturate the market with marketing dollars, which has been very successful at drawing in large numbers of users.

The AIM beta application for the Palm OS was previously available for download from AOL using keyword "AOL Anywhere," but as of this writing, only AOLMail for Palm is available. Although you don't need to be a subscriber to use the desktop version of AIM, you do have to be a subscriber -- or at least know one -- to download the beta version of AIM for Palm. Although I had issues getting AIM to run on my Palm VII, the program worked flawlessly on my Palm V with the Omnisky modem.

Firing up the application for the first time, I felt like Alexander Graham Bell discovering the telephone: You simply launch the application, enter someone's screen name, tap out a message and click send. Within about 10 seconds of sending a friend a message, I got a response. Amazing. Instant communication in your Palm is finally a reality.

Now don't get me wrong: There are times when nothing but a full-featured e-mail client will do. But then again, there are times when a full e-mail client just isn't available or convenient. Having a PDA is not only a boon for frequent travelers, it affords you the ability to send Instant Messages to anyone on the Internet in seconds. Now that's a compelling application!

Imagine being able to ping a friend in the middle of a meeting with an important question, or imagine being able to have a full duplex chat with a colleague on a conference call. Now imagine doing those from the back of a taxicab or from the elevator on your way to a meeting ­- or even better, from the ninth fairway at your country club. Imagine no more; these technologies make this kind of convenience a reality.

Jason D. O'Grady is is the head of the wireless practice at Odyssey Systems Corp. and publisher of Go2Mac.com and PalmLounge.com.

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