For a pretty good Pocket PC experience, check out this wireless service

Windows CE—based PDAs have been around since 1996, and wireless services have been available almost as long as the first devices. I've tried most of these services, but I've never found one that entirely suits my needs. Early wireless services were dedicated to text-only email and operated at very low data rates. Later services provided full wireless Internet access (including Web-browsing and email-attachment capabilities), but such access typically has been poorly optimized for the Windows CE devices' small form factor. For the past couple of months, I've been testing a new wireless service that addresses these problems. OmniSky's service—OmniSky 2.0—isn't perfect, in part because the company originally developed the service for devices that use the Palm OS, but it's better than any other wireless service I've tried for a Windows CE device.

The OmniSky service, which is based on the Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) data-transmission technology, has been available for Palm V and Handspring Visor PDAs for a while. Now, the service is available on Compaq iPAQ and Hewlett-Packard (HP) Jornada Pocket PCs, and the company is developing a version for Casio's Cassiopeia Pocket PC. I tested OmniSky on a Compaq iPAQ with a Sierra Wireless AirCard 300 wireless PC Card modem and a PC Card expansion pack.

The PC Card expansion pack is necessary because the iPAQ, unlike most Pocket PCs, doesn't have a CompactFlash (CF) adapter slot. The expansion pack encases the iPAQ and connects to a proprietary electrical socket on the bottom of the device. To make room for a PC Card slot, the expansion pack is large, and the result is quite a handful—5.11" high by 3.28" wide by 1.2" deep, and weighing about 10 ounces. Compaq has built in an additional lithium-polymer battery to take advantage of the extra capacity. With both the lithium-polymer battery and the iPAQ's built-in battery charged, I've enjoyed 6 hours of continuous operation, or several days of intermittent use.

Using OmniSky on the iPAQ
To install OmniSky on a Pocket PC, you use a standard Windows-based installer and Microsoft ActiveSync 3.0. After setup is complete, you simply reset the Pocket PC. An OmniSky entry appears in the Start menu.

OmniSky's top-level interface, which Figure 1 shows, lists partner content (optimized for small PDA displays) and icons for the service's email Inbox, Web browser, directory, and Internet search features. The menu also offers a My OmniSky link to a customizable page that can include stock quotes, weather reports, horoscopes, sports news, and local news.

The partner-content links cover a wide range of interests, including finance, shopping, international and local news, sports, and entertainment. Within these categories, you'll find content from well-known providers such as E*Trade, Travelocity.com, eBay, The New York Times, MSNBC, Yahoo!, Citysearch, Excite, and Britannica. Much of the partner content is consumer-oriented rather than business-oriented; but some of the content is useful to travelers: MapQuest's interactive driving directions and Etak's traffic reports particularly impressed me. While I was testing OmniSky, some of the service's partner content (e.g., FedWorld news, USA TODAY's top stories) wasn't accessible. At press time, OmniSky still hadn't resolved the problem.

OmniSky's online directory lets you search for people or businesses based on a name or telephone number. With a feature called one-tap, you can easily capture addresses and phone numbers and add them directly to the iPAQ's built-in Contacts application. OmniSky also offers a slick Search feature (powered by Google's search engine), with which you can look for information either in OmniSky's partner content or on the Web.

Exploiting the iPAQ's built-in version of Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), OmniSky lets you browse any public Web site. However, the iPAQ's small display and the AirCard 300 wireless modem's low data-transfer rate (19.2Kbps) impede this activity. Most Web sites today are optimized for PC displays that provide at least 800 * 600 resolution. On the iPAQ's 240 * 320 display, you'll spend an awful lot of time scrolling around to find the information you want. (Filling out complicated forms can be particularly annoying.) If the page you're browsing doesn't have much fine print, you can use IE's Fit To Screen option to resize and reposition text and graphics. However, as Figure 2 shows, this capability doesn't always help.

The browser also suffers from one of OmniSky's more irritating features—a single-tasking UI. If you switch from a Web page to another application, then switch back to the browser, you'll find yourself at OmniSky's home page instead of the page you were viewing. I suspect this feature is a holdover from OmniSky's origins on the Palm OS platform. The single-tasking UI isn't appropriate to Windows CE and isn't consistent with the way applications (including IE) typically operate on the iPAQ.

OmniSky's email functionality takes advantage of Pocket PC's built-in POP3 or IMAP4 Inbox. OmniSky enhancements include multiple folders (one for each email account); a Find command that searches for specific messages in the Inbox; the ability to send email to a phone, fax machine, or pager; and perhaps most important, data compression that—according to OmniSky—improves email performance by 40 percent. (I can confirm that email performance is noticeably faster than that of the Pocket PC's built-in functionality.) OmniSky also proudly notes that you can attach memos, business cards, and to-do lists to messages, but the service supports only the Palm Query Application (PQA), Palm Resource (PRC), vCal, vCard, and .txt attachment formats—the first four of which are Palm OS—specific. Because the iPAQ—like all Pocket PCs—includes Microsoft Pocket Word and Microsoft Pocket Excel, I'd at least like to see the service support those formats.

OmniSky's Corporate Link feature complements the built-in POP3 or IMAP4 email functionality. Corporate Link is an email redirector that works in conjunction with Microsoft Outlook 2000 or Outlook 98 on your desktop and selectively forwards messages to your device's Inbox. In some respects, the feature is similar to Microsoft Outlook Mobile Manager (MOMM), but it doesn't require a Microsoft Exchange Server machine—it's perfectly happy with an ISP-based account. (For information about MOMM, see Mobile & Wireless, "Microsoft Outlook Mobile Manager," October 2001.) Corporate Link's greatest advantage is that you can receive email on both your device and your desktop. You can also use Outlook's rules to selectively forward only the messages you want to see on the device. One catch is that you must have Internet access from the desktop PC on which Outlook runs. Corporate Link supports the same attachments as OmniSky's POP3 or IMAP4 mail.

I've found a workaround, though: If you have Web-based access to your email account, you can use OmniSky's Web browser to access mail—including attachments. Unlike the dedicated email client, this approach supports Word's .doc files and Excel's .xls files; but it's slow. I recommend this workaround only if you have no alternative. I'd hoped that MSN's Hotmail would provide a good workaround, but Hotmail detects that you're browsing with a Pocket PC and redirects you to MSN Mobile—which doesn't support attachments. Perhaps MSN will eventually correct that limitation, and perhaps OmniSky will support Pocket PC file formats for mail attachments in a future release.

I hoped that OmniSky on the iPAQ would provide Web-browser support for PQAs (aka Web-clipping applications), which the Palm V and Handspring Visor versions of OmniSky support. PQAs provide a much broader range of PDA-optimized content than OmniSky's more limited partner content. Unfortunately, PQAs don't work on any of the Windows CE platforms. This limitation is difficult to understand—PQAs are based on HTML, and you can even run them on a Research In Motion (RIM) BlackBerry device. OmniSky's email functionality already supports PQAs as attachments, so a similarly equipped browser seems an ideal match.

A Pretty Good Value
OmniSky isn't cheap. The iPAQ costs $499, and the AirCard 300 and PC Card expansion pack add up to more than $500. After you obtain the hardware, the service has a flat-rate cost of $39.95 per month. Before you place your order, check to see whether your area has CDPD coverage. At OmniSky's Web site (http://www.omnisky.com/discover/pricing_coverage/index.jhtml), you can access a coverage map. (Generally, coverage is good on the West Coast and the East Coast but spottier elsewhere.) You can also view an online demo of the service at OmniSky's home page (http://www.omnisky.com).

Overall, my impression of OmniSky is positive—the service isn't perfect, but it provides a much better experience than that of any other wireless service I've tried on a Pocket PC, or any Windows CE device. However, I won't hand over my Palm VIIx just yet, at least not until OmniSky provides browser support for PQAs or offers equivalent partner content.