- ✓Integrated wireless email and Web browsing, including the complete hardware platform if required
- ✓faster and richer than WAP.
- ✕Handspring Visor Prism/ VisorPhone platform is relatively bulky and heavy
- ✕browser currently lacks colour support
- ✕email client currently lacks IMAP4 support.
OmniSky International, a partnership between US-based OmniSky Corporation and News International, will shortly launch its integrated wireless email and Web browsing service across Europe. In the UK, the company has been running a beta trial using Handspring's Visor and VisorPhone GSM add-on since February, and ZDNet UK has been evaluating the service on this platform for a month now. We have been impressed with OmniSky's usability, range of optimised content and, to a lesser extent, speed (it currently runs on a 9.6Kbit/s GSM network). You can still sign up for the beta program, and OmniSky is running a special introductory offer comprising a Visor Platinum, VisorPhone and three months' free service for £199 (ex. VAT).
OmniSky International delivers a range of wireless services via a suite of Palm OS software, the centrepiece of which is a browser, currently standing at version 2.0. There's also an email client, OS Mail 2.0, which can manage up to six POP3 accounts (including a free OmniSky account), plus the applications that are normally bundled with the VisorPhone -- an SMS client, a phone dialler/manager and a SIM phonebook. OmniSky supplied us with a colour Handspring Prism and VisorPhone, the latter equipped with a BT Cellnet SIM, with all the software pre-installed and set up. The VisorPhone's voice functionality was disabled for the purposes of the beta test, but will be fully operational when the service ships.
Without any installation and setup procedures to detain us, getting online was as simple as hitting the blue 'data call' button on the OmniSky-badged VisorPhone and selecting one of the optimised sites in the OmniSky browser. These are listed under seven main categories (News, Sports, Travel, Local, Shopping, Entertainment and Reference), and include Web stalwarts such as the BBC, The Financial Times, The Economist, British Airways, Lastminute.com, Maporama, StockPoint and ZDNet UK. Assuming you can get a BT Cellnet signal, connection times are reasonable - around 15 seconds if all goes well - and certainly faster than the average WAP phone. Optimised content is formatted for Palm OS's 160 by 160 pixel screen, and can optionally contain graphics. The OmniSky browser, which currently does not support colour, is compatible with both AvantGo content and Palm's Web clipping architecture.
OmniSky claims that over 1,000 Web sites are configured to deliver optimised content, but if the site you want to access isn't among them, you can always explore the 'open' Web by clicking on the Web icon on the left-hand side of the main screen. However, you'll have to put up with a longer response time, as pages have to be formatted for the small screen on the fly. Bookmark and history functions are provided to streamline the browsing experience.
Another main screen icon takes you to the Scoot-powered Directory service, where you can search for phone numbers and addresses of people and businesses. OmniSky's useful OneTap function lets you save selected information directly to your address book. There's also a Google-powered search facility, again accessed via a prominent main screen icon.
Email on the move will be the key benefit of OmniSky's service for many users, and the email client does a good job, even though this version only supports POP3 accounts (up to six of them, including a free omnisky.net account). The interface is straightforward, and includes useful features like pre-written phrases on a pull-down menu to minimise the need for text entry. You can also filter incoming messages, read headers only if required, create subfolders for your POP3 accounts and forward attachments without downloading them. Email notification is possible, but you'll need to keep an eye on battery life if you check for incoming messages on a short cycle.
The mail client doesn't support IMAP4 accounts, although this is planned. Also due towards the end of April is a corporate email service, OS Corporate Link, which will provide secure access to Microsoft Exchange servers (but not Lotus Notes).
As it stands, the OmniSky service is well worth considering -- the reluctance with which we handed back our beta kit is testament enough to that. If you're not a Handspring fan, you'll be pleased to hear that OmniSky International plans to support a wider range of platforms, including the Palm V with Ubinetics' GSM sled or a Bluetooth phone, as well as Pocket PC and Symbian devices. Further down the line, OmniSky will run on GPRS networks and deliver enhanced functionality such as location-based services. We can't wait.