A closer look at competing platforms

Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry is the established leader in the wireless e-mail market, offering a simple, light, compact device that excels at delivering e-mail.

It incorporates a tiny keyboard, making it easier to reply to messages. The device is always on, so it is always receiving e-mails without any prompting from the user. That means no waiting for messages to download at certain times.

The pager-based data network lacks the higher bandwidth of cellular communication, but the network is more widespread and its signal is more resilient, so it penetrates farther into buildings.

The BlackBerry's battery can power the device without a recharge for weeks at a time, so there is usually no need to carry a charging cradle on trips.

But there are some tradeoffs. It can be configured to convert attachments to text so they may be read, but its strength is in handling the e-mail message itself.

The company has also built in some calendar and information management capabilities, but these programs lag customers' expectations after using handheld computers like the Palm Pilot for several years. The small monochrome display looks, well, boring, compared to the exciting color displays available on some personal digital assistants these days.

In the handheld camp, Palm Inc. has entered the wireless e-mail market with its i705 PDA. This device runs the Palm OS on a nice big screen, so it is handy for running any of the thousands of Palm applications in addition to its basic calendar and information management functions.

Its built-in wireless networking lets the i705 pick up e-mail on the fly using the same slow but reliable pager network as RIM uses. Palm bundles a third-party utility that lets i705 users easily read attached Microsoft Corp. Word and Excel files, which makes the device more useful for data sharing.

Downside? No attached keyboard, so the choices are to use the Graffiti handwriting recognition system used by all Palm devices, or to buy a $60 detachable keyboard that adds to the i705's bulk.

The battery doesn't last very long either. When the device is left on constantly, the battery is good for a few days, not a couple weeks. Also, there is no color display. As with the BlackBerry, i705 users will pay $40 per month for the wireless network service.

Wild card entrants in the contest are PDAs and cell phones running Microsoft PocketPC or PalmOS. Handspring Inc. offers the Treo 180 cell phone, which runs Palm OS and includes a built-in BlackBerry-style thumb keyboard. It is saddled with Palm's 160 x 160 resolution monochrome display. And, it has a cell phone-like battery life of a few days.

Using the cellular network means that e-mail downloads more quickly than devices that use the pager network, but the device isn't always-on, so download time is more apparent. It also lacks the resilience during disasters that the pager network gave BlackBerry users on Sept. 11. And the resulting 9,600 bits/sec speed is still too slow for Web browsing, so the faster connection is of suspect benefit.

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