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Personal Messaging Offers a Whole New Way to Stay Connected

June 10, 1996|LYNN WALFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So you're looking for top-drawer mobile communications and convenience combined with a little cachet? Forget about that cell phone. Don't even think about a mere digital pager. What you need is a personal messaging system, an e-mail terminal that doesn't need a phone line and fits easily in your pocket.

Until recently, such devices were hopelessly expensive and hardly practical; e-mail, after all, isn't much fun unless lots of people have it, and no one wants to carry around the clunky external modems and extra battery packs that wireless data devices required.

But the Internet boom, combined with steady price declines for palm-top computers and data communications services, better batteries and big improvements in the wireless modems themselves, is now giving a whole new meaning to staying connected.

Just ask Brentwood resident Robert Tas. A district sales manager for the software firm Sybase, Tas has for the last eight months been sending and receiving e-mail from hotel rooms, airports, golf courses, Lakers games--and, of course, from his Porsche while zooming down the 405.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 17, 1996 Home Edition Business Part D Page 2 Financial Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
RadioMail--A story about wireless data services in last week's Cutting Edge misstated the location of RadioMail Corp. The company is based in San Mateo, Calif.

"I love it," says Tas, who uses Hewlett-Packard's 200LX palmtop computer equipped with a wireless modem. "I use it almost every minute and receive at least 30 messages a day from work. It makes my time much more productive."

Many wireless modems are now about the size of a credit card, and they fit into special slots on hand-held or notebook computers. Several wireless data providers, including San Jose-based RadioMail and San Luis Obispo-based WyndMail, offer service with monthly fees starting at $30 to $40 a month.

Another alternative is a modem that works with regular cellular telephone networks. Bob Kertesz, technical partner at Commercial Video Services in Los Feliz, dials his Internet service provider to check e-mail four or five times a day via a cellular modem connected to a 486 notebook computer.

"It's a competitive business and you have to stay on top of things," Kertesz says. "Everything has to be done in a timely manner. When people want answers, they want it yesterday." Although his cellular phone bill has increased by more than $100 a month, he believes it's been worth it.

Analysts say that if you need to send and receive large data files, it's more cost-effective to use a cellular modem connected to a cell phone. Otherwise, the special wireless data networks, which use a different kind of technology known as packet data, are a better bet.

The applications go far beyond corporate road warriors staying in touch with the office. Dr. M. Michael Shabot, director of surgical intensive care at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, was at home doing his taxes at 11 p.m. one recent Sunday when he was automatically alerted to a patient's respiratory problems, then immediately received the relevant medical data on his palm-top computer.

He phoned a resident at the hospital, Dr. Paul Ting, who was near the patient's room. And because Shabot had the electronic chart, he was able to instantly advise Ting on the proper procedures.

The radio signal was initiated by a unique computer network in the surgical intensive care unit at Cedars-Sinai. Each patient's life support system--as well as electronic devices that monitor heart rhythm and blood gas, for instance--is connected to the network. Software called StatLink, developed at the hospital, is programmed to send a radio alert when a laboratory reading reaches a critical level or when a patient's medical condition changes in a dangerous way.

"We need to be alerted to life-threatening conditions immediately because the patient's outcome is related to the speed of the response," said Shabot, governor of the American College of Surgeons. "The combination of alerting capacity and radio is a perfect marriage of technology and a critically needed medical application."

The list of potential uses for wireless data devices goes on--even if price is likely to prevent their becoming true mass-market products any time soon. Joe Fristensky of the market researcher Frost & Sullivan predicts there will be 12.5 million wireless data users by 2000--including those using a new generation of mobile services known as personal communications services, or PCS.

"We see all sorts of people use wireless--a political campaign manager to keep in contact with home base, a journalist and an actor in a touring company," says Judy Leigh, marketing director of RadioMail, which she says saw a 300% increase in subscribers from the last quarter of 1995 to the first quarter of 1996.

The California Highway Patrol checks licenses, registrations and criminal records with wireless modems and notebook computers that are mounted in patrol cars. One local criminal defense attorney uses a wireless modem to send faxes from court.

Matthew Morrisey, a computer screen and animation designer, uses either an Apple Newton or a Macintosh PowerBook with a wireless modem while on location in New York. During production, he has sent e-mail and screen design files to producer Todd Hallowell's office in Century City.

And, of course, there's that crucial age-old reason for buying the latest fanciest technology. Quips one recent wireless data convert: "It's a conversation piece and great way to meet women."

Lynn Walford is a Los Angeles writer and consultant.

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