Saturday, September 19, 2009

In Defense of PocketMail has a feature article called The 5 Most Ridiculously Awful Computers Ever Made. PocketMail comes in at #2 with this picture:

I think I'm offended.

PocketMail was an odd little product that filled an odd little niche and yet is something I am inordinately proud of. I almost wish I still used it, so I could pull it out and show the world the icons I designed and the features I added or specified and insisted upon.

I remember watching the first 20 prototype units come off the assembly line at the GSL factory in southern China. Good grief, they were awful! All the tiny things that can go wrong - cracks in the plastic, keyboards that are too squishy and slant to one side, hinges with too much slop...worst of all, the acoustic coupler arm that didn't quite work in its first implementation.

But we got a few devices that worked well enough to tweak and test and put better software on. Through repeated visits to China, many redesign cycles and software iterations, it finally got good enough to release, to show at conventions, to sell. And now it's a product out in the world meeting the real needs of real people. Something you could hold in your hand and say "I made this!" It was never particularly flashy. It was "trailing edge technology". But it worked!

Here's what the Cracked writers missed.

Yes, PocketMail lets you send and receive email anywhere in the world that has telephones. You can compose messages and read received messages offline while in transit, then update your messages during a 30-second phone call. If PocketMail works for you in the US, it'll work exactly that well in Hong Kong, in Tokyo, in England, and even in stranger places where you're not so likely to find Internet Cafes. If there are telephones, you can use pocketmail. Even when - as is often the case - the local phone network is too noisy to support a modem connection.

But wait! How much does this cost? In the US, it's a toll-free 800 number. It's toll-free in many other parts of the world too. So rather than paying ludicrous per-packet "roaming" data charges as you would with a cellphone and rather than having to set up an "international plan" to reduce those charges from obscene to merely somewhat overpriced, it Just Works. If you're someplace where they don't have toll-free access, at least the call will be short; a lot shorter than a voice call.

The PocketMail pitch was: unlimited email on the go, anywhere in the world, originally for $9.95/month but later bumped to $15/month. No extra data charges. Using a device whose battery life was measured in weeks instead of hours. In a compact "clamshell" format with a better keyboard than a blackberry and a nice wide LCD screen.

If you can afford the monthly charges for an iPhone, PocketMail probably isn't for you. But there are a lot of RVers and pilots and truckers who found it just the right thing to meet their needs.

PocketMail was a great little device for its time.