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TECHNOLOGY

Feeling Disconnected in the Wireless World

A cutting-edge hand-held's features and glitches put one user in overload. Beam him back to the real world.

April 18, 2002|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I am mobile man, Homo mobilis.

The promise of the wireless age is the ability to be in touch any time, anyplace. The ultimate expression of that promise so far is Handspring Inc.'s Treo, which combines a telephone, text messenger, e-mailer, Web browser and personal digital assistant in a single unit not much bigger than a traditional electronic organizer.

Now if only I could get it to work.

After a week toting Treo, this conclusion: The wireless world is nigh, but it still has a few bugs to work out. And do we really want to live in it anyway?

To begin with, one must endure a world of pain just to pass the threshold of the mobile revolution.

By pain, I mean at least $399 worth to start. That's what it costs to buy the Treo. Make that $599 if you don't purchase a yearlong wireless plan.

Having recovered from sticker shock, I again prepared to stride into the mobile revolution. As an experienced user of computers and hand-held devices, I was confident I would have no problem learning this new device. Some of its features--the PDA, outgoing phone calls--worked right out of the box.

But getting other features to work--incoming calls, e-mail, messenger, Web browser--required yet another journey. This time, I wandered aimlessly amid mysterious instructions, wrong instructions, nonfunctioning components, multiple passwords and endless calls to technical support.

"Your call is very important to us ... ."

The problems began with incoming calls--I couldn't get them unless initiated from another Treo. Anyone calling the Treo on a regular telephone got messages that the number had been disconnected.

I also was not able to receive text messages--except, again, from another Treo--or e-mail. Handspring and Cingular wireless service technicians both said they had never seen that problem before.

It was not the last time I would hear that line. It was slowly dawning on me that one of the really beautiful things about the mobile revolution was that support people stay in one place.

A replacement chip gave the Treo a new phone number. It could then get incoming calls but no longer sync with my desktop computer. A Handspring tech support person directed me to give the device a "hard reset" (the PDA verison of reboot), and that fixed it.

One of the most alluring aspects of becoming a mobile man was the possibility of picking up my regular e-mail while away from my desktop computer. The Treo was equipped with a program called Treo Mail. The program was in beta, which has its good and bad qualities.

The good news was that it was free--when out of beta, Treo Mail will cost about $10 a month for those who send or receive up to 20 e-mails a day. The bad was that it didn't work on my company's e-mail system. After a long phone session with a Handspring technician, he thanked me for pinpointing a new problem. It was the least I could do.

Treo Mail worked on my home e-mail account. Unfortunately, my house is a cellular dead zone, so every time I try a mobile feature I have to walk a couple blocks and stand under a street light. This was not exactly the mobility I had in mind when I embarked.

But in the midst of all this frustration, I had to admit that the thought of having all this mobile power in my hand was alluring. Out of the box, the Treo was the coolest thing going, imbuing me with an aura of tech hipness that no mere laptop or cellular phone could come close to.

The Treo's flip-up cover elicited comparisons to "Star Trek" communicators. Colleagues wandered the halls, shouting into it, "Beam me up," or Scotty's immortal, "Captain, we're losing power in the warp engines!"

With most of the functions up and running, I was ready to take Treo on the road. The PDA, which uses the Palm operating system, does not have the normal Palm handwriting recognition pad. That was a plus. I found it much easier to enter info with the thumb keyboard.

I picked the most serene urban spot I know--a Japanese garden blocks from the office--to send my thoughts via short message service for mobile phones to the world. Outgoing worked well, though with delays of up to 90 minutes.

Incoming messages were best when short; after only about 20 words, they broke into separate takes, which could be confusing. Also, some messages arrived with no identification of the sender.

The transfer of home e-mail was hit or miss. Because of storage limitations, I was able to get only two or three messages at a time. Of course junk e-mail came in with everything else. I was especially glad to have my Treo provide me with an offer to buy a Kmart stock certificate as a "valuable collectible."

But no matter. I was already in digital overload. Even with letting phone calls go into answering machine mode, the loveliness of the garden was lost in the waves of messages I was sending and receiving.

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