SAN MATEO (03/06/2000) - For most mobile workers, e-mail is their lifeline to clients and company matters. But getting electronic mail usually involves unproductive time, such as booting up a laptop or finding a phone line to connect a PDA's (personal digital assistant's) modem.
That's all changing with wireless handhelds, such as Palm Computing Inc.'s Palm VII, or with WAP (Wireless Application Protocol)-enabled handsets. For example, ThinAirApps LLC's ThinAir, a free wireless Internet e-mail client for the Palm, provides instant access to multiple POP3 or IMAP (Internet Messaging Access Protocol) mail accounts, as well as Microsoft HotMail. Now, ThinAirApps offers to enterprises ThinAir Server -- the server behind ThinAir -- a solution that gives your mobile workers convenient, secure access to corporate e-mail systems (and ultimately to other behind-the-firewall resources).
On the downside, employees must maintain their Palm.Net or cellular provider accounts. This expense, combined with the licensing cost of the ThinAir Server, can be high. Still, because workers potentially spend less time retrieving and answering e-mail, ThinAir server makes business sense and scores Very Good.
The road to wireless e-mail
ThinAir Server comprises three applications, which you mix to match your e-mail system. Connector Server provides the secure gateway between wireless devices and your organization's infrastructure; Provider, currently available in three versions (for Microsoft Exchange Server, IMAP, and POP3), hooks up users to your e-mail system; finally, TrafficControl software monitors multiple Connector Servers and Provider components.
I tested ThinAir Server for Exchange because this configuration would be common in many enterprises running Windows NT Server. Setup requires separate loading and configuration of each module -- typically on a machine separate from your Exchange server. Wizards and clear documentation speed the installation process, which usually takes about five minutes.
Alas, I took a few unexpected detours because my test setup runs Windows 2000 Advanced Server (which ThinAir is currently qualifying) and had Web services besides ThinAir running. So this was a good test of ThinAirApps' technical support. A courteous representative returned my help call within one hour.
Equally important, the person knew precisely what I needed to change in my configuration files to enable all applications to coexist happily.
Once the setup was complete, I was ready for users to run the ThinAir Secure Client application on their Palm devices. After launching this small (40KB) program, I merely entered the name of my ThinAir Connector Server, created an account, and typed in the name of my Microsoft Exchange Server.
Once logged in, the ThinAir client immediately displayed my inbox, which was read in real time from the corporate Microsoft Exchange Server. The ThinAir inbox display does a fine job of showing messages -- with familiar columns for message subject, sender, date, and time.
Tapping different icons on the Palm VII let me easily read, delete, compose, forward, reply to, and search for messages. Additionally, the Refresh icon retrieved any new messages received after I logged on. I was especially pleased with message composing; ThinAir let me select people or distribution lists from my personal Palm address book or use entries in my Exchange Server's global address book.
But e-mail is just half of the story. Tapping the Event tab at the bottom of the ThinAir inbox displayed my event list. Selecting a particular event displayed showed the attendees and location of the activity. What's more, ThinAir let me add the event to my Palm Date Book.
Conversely, I composed a meeting invitation from the Event screen, then selected invitees in the same way that I selected e-mail addressees (either from my Palm's local addresses book or from the Exchange Server's global list).
As a final test, I accessed my ThinAir Server using the WAP browser in a cellular phone. Because of the phone's small text display, I wouldn't pick this approach for my main wireless e-mail access. Still, it's a major accomplishment that I was able to view my messages from the Exchange server (and see contacts, notes, tasks, and calendar) using the phone.
For enterprises, ThinAir Server overcomes several limitations of wireless e-mail. It eliminates the step of forwarding e-mail from a corporate system to an ISP account. Wireless devices work almost instantly. Furthermore, you gain direct access to other internal resources, such as calendars.
Although ThinAir Server is a very good start, ThinAirApps still needs to deliver components to access other company resources -- something the it appears serious about. For example, a company representative said a Provider for Lotus Notes and Domino is in testing. Delivering this and follow-on products will be an important step in building corporate acceptance for ThinAir Server.
Mike Heck (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing editor and manager of electronic promotions at Unisys Corp., in Blue Bell, Pa.
THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD
ThinAir Server 1.0
Business Case: ThinAir Server is an effective but expensive means of providing mobile professionals with wireless access to groupware and e-mail systems.
Technology Case: ThinAir Server manages two-way, real-time data communications between wireless devices and Microsoft Exchange, IMAP, and POP3 e-mail systems.
+ RSA-based 128-bit SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) encryption+ Works with popular wireless devices and common e-mail systems+ Real-time connection to internal resources, including calendarsCons:
- Costly server plus ISP wireless charges- Currently provides access only to e-mail applicationsCost: Server starts at $1,000 (annual license for five users); volume discount available for 100 or more clientsPlatform(s): For Microsoft Exchange Server: Windows NT 4.0; for POP3 and IMAP e-mail servers: Windows NT, Solaris, and Linux. Client: Palm OS, WinCE, Blackberry, and WAP-enabled cellular telephonesThinAirApps LLC, New York; (212) 343-5000; www.thinairapps.com.