Devices for wireless Exchange access

To the everlasting dismay of my dear wife, Arlene, I love gadgets. However, one gadget has won her favor—my Kyocera QCP 6035 smartphone—because it gives me wireless access to our home Microsoft Exchange Server system.

Wireless access to Exchange mailboxes is a growing demand. If you, too, want to impress your spouse (or boss) by providing wireless access to Exchange data, the first step is to understand your selection of wireless devices, a bit about how they work, and the more exotic platforms they involve (i.e., not your typical Microsoft Outlook client and TCP/IP dial-up, LAN, or WAN connections).

Wireless devices for accessing Exchange mailboxes fall into two basic categories: devices that communicate directly with your Exchange server and devices that require some kind of middleware. Within these two categories, you find a bewildering array of protocols, software adapters, and other paraphernalia. None of these devices are superfast. For example, wireless Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) transmits at a blazing 19.2Kbps. However, 19.2Kbps is better than nothing, and vendors design their products to work within low-bandwidth environments.

The BlackBerry Family
Research In Motion's (RIM's) BlackBerry is arguably the most well-known wireless Exchange-access device. Understanding why people call the device "CrackBerry" or "The Homewrecker" is easy: When you get used to having email access everywhere, you tend to use email everywhere.

BlackBerry uses the Mobitex wireless packet data protocol to make this mail-on-the-go possible. Cingular Wireless and its affiliates offer Mobitex service in most metropolitan areas throughout the United States and Canada (and even in the small Alabama town where I live). Services for other parts of the world are in the works. Because Mobitex is essentially an extended paging protocol, you have BlackBerry service most places you have pager service.

If your Blackberry handheld isn't visible to the network (e.g., you're outside the coverage area, your batteries are low, you're on an airplane), RIM stores your messages until you can receive them. In addition, you can generate and accept meeting requests from your handheld. Messages you send from your handheld go through the Mobitex network to RIM's network center. BlackBerry's message-sending approach offers some nifty bonuses: the Global Address List (GAL) is visible on the handheld, and messages you send also appear in your desktop's Sent Items folder—even when you're still on the road. BlackBerry Software 2.1 and later can also synchronize Calendar data.

BlackBerry offers two Exchange-access options. Your first option is BlackBerry Internet Edition, which supports only one mailbox. You install this edition's BlackBerry Desktop Redirector component on your Outlook client machine. The redirector compresses and encrypts outgoing email, then sends it through SMTP to RIM's network center, which wirelessly relays the message to your device. Only your handheld can decrypt the messages from your redirector. Filter rules let you specify, by size and sender, which messages the redirector sends to your device.

The bad news about BlackBerry Internet Edition is that the Outlook client PC needs to be running and connected to your Exchange server for the redirector to do its thing. If that PC is a docked laptop that you need to take with you when you go mobile, you're out of luck. Likewise, no email for you if something kills your Outlook session.

Because BlackBerry devices are so popular, you'll likely have multiple users needing BlackBerry access, and you'll likely want to centrally manage your BlackBerry services. In this situation, the second Exchange-access option, BlackBerry Enterprise Edition, makes more sense. The enterprise edition runs under a service account on your network. BlackBerry Enterprise Edition picks up clients' email, compresses and encrypts it, then uses an Internet connection to send the email to RIM's network center, which then routes the email to its recipients. An obvious advantage is that the desktop client doesn't need to be online for the handheld to receive email. However, BlackBerry Enterprise Edition is more expensive, and as of this writing, doesn't run on Exchange 2000 Server systems (but does deliver to Exchange 2000 mailboxes). For more information about BlackBerry, see Anneliese Walsh, "BlackBerry," March 2001.

Compaq also sells BlackBerry devices and offers similar software and services. If your organization is a large Compaq account, you might get a better deal.

The Pocket PC Family
You would be right to think that Microsoft's line of handhelds, Pocket PCs, work well with Microsoft's messaging system. When you need wireless email access and also need the ability to read, modify, and compose Office-format documents, the Pocket PC is your best solution.

For wireless access to Exchange, you first need to connect the Pocket PC to a wireless modem. If you have a Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC that accommodates a PC Card adapter, you can use Sierra Wireless's PC Card CDPD modem, the AirCard 300 for Notebooks and Handhelds. To go wireless with your Hewlett-Packard (HP) Jornada 540 Series Pocket PC, you'll need the appropriately shaped Novatel Wireless Minstrel 540 modem. GoAmerica Communications sells a modem that fits some models of Casio's Cassiopeia.

Most Pocket PCs use AT&T's CDPD wireless network, which is available in most metro areas but not in Birmingham, Alabama; Atlanta; Kansas City, Missouri; New Orleans; or Las Vegas, Nevada—to name a few areas. Check the vendor's coverage map before you plunk down the money for wireless service. CDPD modems have individual IP addresses, so you can wirelessly use any TCP/IP application that runs on the Pocket PC, including various flavors of instant messaging. Infowave's product line lets you use a Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) mobile phone for the same effects when you're outside the United States.

Another cool Pocket PC feature is that you can use the devices with IEEE 802.11b—compatible wireless cards (e.g., Symbol Technologies' CompactFlash 802.11 card). You can use wireless cards to roam wirelessly around your campus, then swap in a wireless modem when you hit the road. Several airports in cities such as Austin, Texas, and Seattle also offer 802.11b access throughout their concourses. American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines either offer or plan to offer 802.11b service in their North American airport lounges.

The obvious question is, Why not use Pocket PC's Outlook Web Access (OWA) for wireless email access? Turning on basic authentication lets you do so. However, the view of the OWA UI from a Pocket PC screen isn't the greatest. The Pocket PC's unfriendliness to OWA is also unfortunate because OWA would let you overcome one of the Pocket PC's biggest failings: It can't synchronize with your Exchange Calendar. For more information about working wirelessly on your Pocket PC, see Tony Redmond, "The Well-Connected Pocket PC," February 2001.

The Palm Family
The most popular handhelds—by a wide margin—are the Palm family of devices. Palm's Pilot 1000 and Pilot 5000 started the handheld craze in the early 1990s. Since then, Palm and its Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) have added several useful features to the devices, including CDPD wireless access. Four different device configurations give you wireless access. (To provide wireless email access to clients who use these devices, you need to enable POP3 or IMAP4.)

First, the Palm VII and Palm VIIx offer directly integrated CDPD radios. Kyocera's QCP 6035 smartphone offers an integrated wireless modem that the Palm software thinks is a CDPD radio. Furthermore, the Palm family works in more places than Pocket PCs because the Palm devices use BellSouth's RAM Mobile Data network rather than AT&T's CDPD wireless network. The QCP 6035 smartphone works anywhere you have Verizon Wireless or Sprint Spectrum's personal communications services (PCS).

Second, you can use a third-party (e.g., OmniSky, Novatel Wireless) wireless CDPD modem that attaches to the Palm III and Palm V family of devices and Handspring Visor devices. These modems are identical in function to their Pocket PC—compatible brethren, so they restrict you to the more limited coverage areas. HandEra's HandEra 330 device can also use Pocket PC—compatible CompactFlash modems.

Third, if you're fortunate enough to own a Visor, you can purchase a clip-on gadget called a VisorPhone that turns your Visor into a GSM cell phone. After this transformation, you can make data calls over the GSM network to run any TCP/IP application.

Finally, Xircom makes an 802.11b module that fits in Visor devices' Springboard expansion slots. This module lets you access 802.11b networks such as those in your office, airport, or client site.

Unlike the Pocket PC software, Palm software is somewhat fragmented. Some devices let you use standard TCP/IP applications, such as Pumatech's Browse-it Web browser (which works quite nicely with OWA and Microsoft's Hotmail) or Corsoft's Corsoft Aileron POP/IMAP email client (which I use and like). However, for general wireless Internet access, the Palm VII and Palm VIIx are less functional than other Palm OS devices and Pocket PCs.

Cut Your Wires, Not Your Ties
Some people swear by wireless email access. Others dread the idea of being continuously reachable. Whether you want wireless email access or not, chances are that some of your Exchange users will. Wireless capabilities are nice for frequent travelers and people on the go. But before Exchange administrators facilitate a nation of wireless addicts, wireless email users need to learn when to say when. By the way, you can also enable wireless email access for your laptop. Several 802.11b vendors make PC Cards, and Sierra Wireless's AirCard CDPD and Ricochet modems also come in PC Card form.