Road Warrior

More than 2 million PalmPilots have been sold in the past two years. Anybody want mine?

Right on the box it said I could do it: "Manage your E-mail. View, compose, delete, and send E-mail messages right from your PalmPilot"--yadda, yadda, yadda--"so you can stay on top of your E-mail while away from your desk." Bingo. As a power user of cc:Mail Mobile, I dial in to the office to retrieve my E-mail almost twice as often as the next guy. In fact, according to Rob in IS, who tracks these things, I account for 12.5% of the total call-in activity out of a company of 165 people. I'm not particularly proud of that. But, hey, I'm the Road Warrior. It goes with the turf.

So anytime something comes along that promises to make my E-mailing life easier, I'm all ears. Plus, the PalmPilot Professional (PPPro) could take the place of the address book and daily calendar in the ratty old Filofax I've been carrying around for years. Sure, it would take time to transfer the information, but the effort would be worth it: I could stick this little baby in my overcoat pocket and stop lugging my laptop around when I'm on the road.

I was clearly not an early adopter. By the time I walked into my local office-supply store to pick up my own PPPro, 2 million of 3Com's various PalmPilots had been sold, in less than two years. I plopped down my $369.99 and upped the figure by one. "So these come with everything I need to be able to dial in and retrieve my E-mail from cc:Mail Mobile, yes?" I asked the salesclerk. "Yes," he assured me.

He was wrong.

I took the machine back to the office and set out to hook it up, just so I'd know how it worked. It comes with a cradle you plug into one of the ports on the back of your PC, as well as software you download onto the hard drive of your laptop. I did both. Then I tested out the HotSync function. By pressing the teensy HotSync button on the PPPro or clicking on the HotSync icon on the laptop, you're supposed to be able to synchronize and update the daily calendar, the address book, and the cc:Mail applications of both machines. Even though I hadn't yet input all my addresses and appointments, I did have an in-box full of E-mail. So I pressed the tiny button and waited. There was a series of chirpy beeps, and then I saw the words indicating that the synchronization was beginning. It attacked my as-yet-empty address book, to-do list, memos, and expense sheets. Finally it settled on my cc:Mail. And it stayed fixed on my cc:Mail. Time passed. Well, I've got a lot of cc:Mail; this could take some time, I figured. Seagulls flew by my window. Movers unloaded truckloads of furniture into some of the units upstairs. The smell of eggs frying from the restaurant next door faded into the aroma of hamburgers on the grill. As dusk began to settle in, I realized something was amiss. So I called PalmPilot's technical support. And I got through.

Ultimately, the nice lady on the other end of the phone figured out the problem: The PPPro will let you HotSync only 100 E-mail messages from your in-box to the PPPro. If you have more than 100 messages, it won't synchronize the most recent 100; it will freeze up and do nothing.

Well, I always have more than 100 E-mail messages in my in-box. But to get the PPPro operating, I moved all but the 50 most recent from my in-box into a folder marked "mail." Once I did that, the function worked. Of course, there's nothing in the voluminous literature that comes with the PPPro that mentions that your computer will seize up and stall if you surpass the 100-E-mail limit. That omission is not a good thing.

Next I started fiddling with the E-mail function on the PPPro. To respond to my messages, I could use the stylus either to write or to jab at the eensy on-screen keyboard. My practice sentence was "He's got the whole world in his hands," chosen because of the mighty powerful feeling my PPPro purchase had given me. When I tried to write the line with the stylus, it came out as "He's got the whole worllit in his hands." As it turns out, that's pretty much an accurate summing up. I had a "worllit" all right--and it was right in the palm of my hand.

When it came time to send the E-mail, I was flummoxed. The only way I could figure out to do this, given the equipment that I had, was to HotSync with my laptop again and transfer the newly created message from the PalmPilot to my on-line out-box, and to send it from there. That's hardly useful when you're on the road, unless, of course, you have your laptop with you. And if you have your laptop with you, then the whole purpose of having a PPPro is what again?

So I called the local office-supply-store guy who had told me I had everything I needed to send and retrieve E-mail from the road, and he confessed that I'd need a PalmPilot modem to do both. "Do you sell those?" I asked. "No, sorry, try the software superstore downtown," he said. There the salesclerk told me that the modem--which cost another $129--would indeed enable my PPPro to send E-mail just as if I were using cc:Mail Mobile on my laptop.

I took the modem back to the office and got it all rigged up. Then I keyed in the number for our cc:Mail-modem server and dialed in. The phone rang! I heard the blessed static sound of a modem connection. Then more blessed static--but no connection. Rather than waiting around for the change of seasons, I called PPPro's support people right away to find out what I was doing wrong. Again, I got through.

The nice man on the other end of the phone told me I wasn't doing anything wrong. The PPPro, it turns out, doesn't have the capability to handle cc:Mail Mobile--despite the fact that cc:Mail is the second-most-popular E-mail package in the country. (In 1997 it had 14 million users.) The support guy was very helpful and recommended additional software I could buy but none that would enable me to do with the PPPro what I'd bought it for. One workaround he suggested called for purchasing the company's Network HotSync software, which can connect the PPPro to a network, for $69. But Network HotSync, Rob told me, works only with a dial-in remote-access server (RAS), which we don't have. "It'd set us back about $5,000," he said, in that way that IS people have of commenting on things you know are far too expensive to be on the shortlist. "And even if we did have a RAS," he added, "you'd have to leave your computer on and be logged in to the system at all times for the Network HotSync to work." From a security standpoint, Rob noted, that would never fly.

My search continued. I scoured the Web and found at least a dozen sites containing freeware, shareware, and commercial software add-ons for the PalmPilot, none of which lets you use the PPPro to retrieve cc:Mail from the road as you would with cc:Mail Mobile and your laptop. I posted queries with several on-line newsgroups set up specifically to talk PalmPilot shop and got responses assuring me that, yes, there was indeed no way anyone knew of to use cc:Mail Mobile with the PPPro.

So now here I am. In between the purchases and the phone calls and the E-mail attempts, I keyed in all my contact names. I transferred my daily calendar from my Filofax and have decided to use the PPPro as my primary address and datebook, at least until this column is completed. It's been 37 days. The first set of two triple-A batteries just wore out. I still can't figure out how to write the letter K with the tiny stylus. I have discovered, though, that when you create a new E-mail on the PPPro, you can insert the recipient's E-mail address directly from the gizmo's address book with a few pokes of the stylus. Of course, I don't do that much, since I can't send any messages from the PPPro. In fact, I've turned off the HotSync E-mail function and let the E-mail pile back up in my in-box.

The PPPro does make for a nifty and compact daily minder and address book. But even at its new price of $299 it's a tad expensive for those functions. My annual Filofax refill costs $21.50. As I see it, it's going to take more than 13 years for this thing to justify its existence.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is an executive editor at Inc. If you know of an affordable cc:Mail Mobile workaround for the PPPro, then by all means tell him and the worllit where to get it.