Features

You've got MailStation?

National | E-mail for high-tech stragglers, a new way to pass notes during class, and other technology news

Issue: "Midwest's middle men," Oct. 21, 2000

E-mail without computers
Need to check your e-mail? The makers of a device called MailStation claim their invention makes that a bit easier. Their appliance is a terminal that's small, cheap, monochrome, and does nothing but e-mail. MailStation isn't exactly high-end hardware. The $100 device, typically found at Target, K-Mart, and Radio Shack, is for those who want to communicate, not compute. It's the latest attempt to attract high-tech stragglers into cyberspace. MailStation can sit on a counter, out of the way, without the intimidation factor of many full-size computers. The trouble with MailStation is that its limits will irritate anyone who has ever used a real computer. Users can't surf the Web or even use their regular e-mail account. Instead, they have to pay $9.95 a month to get service from MailStation. Messages are limited to about 66 lines and the gizmo only stores about 400 of them. Attachments can't be read with a MailStation; users have to go to a special website to download them. MailStation, which is made by a Silicon Valley company named Cidco, is part of a grand experiment called "Internet appliances." Since the PC is too bulky and hard to use, separate devices will perform single tasks the way pocket calculators, cable converters, and personal stereos do today. Someday, a kitchen appliance may download recipes and send instructions to the microwave and toaster oven, and parents may use a device to quickly check what sites their kids are surfing up on their computers. But today's models are weaker than some cell phones and handheld computers. Until such a device can hook up to a home network, it won't be anything but a low-tech weakling. Gadgets like Mailstation only give a glimpse of the Internet appliance's potential. Notes without paper
Cross a walkie-talkie, a Game Boy, and a handheld computer and you get Cybiko, a small, odd-shaped "infotainment" device marketed at kids and teenagers. America Online, hoping Cybiko will be one of this year's hot Christmas gifts, last month announced that it had made an investment in the company that makes the gizmo. A $129 Cybiko looks like a melted Palm PDA. It comes in bright colors, weighs under four ounces, and has a screen and a tiny keyboard. Users can chat, play games, and swap e-mail. Cybikos can send messages to one another within 300 feet (which is good enough for school) and can hook up to a PC. The gadget takes passing notes in class to a whole new level, letting kids keep in touch constantly, probably to the chagrin of teachers. It also provides the "cool" factor that video games, hi-fi, and home computers provided previous generations. As a handheld computer for people too young for something made by Hewlett-Packard or IBM, Cybiko provides an alternate universe for adolescents where parents won't enter. Will Cybiko be a permanent fixture or a short-term wonder like the old Atari machines? Palm already has a more shapely, inexpensive number aimed at students. It won't be long before the technology will be available in cell phones, and people soon could be chatting with their wristwatches. Cybiko's future depends on a computing principle known as Metcalf's Law: The value of a network grows exponentially as more people use it. If all Junior's friends own a Cybiko, he'll mow every lawn on the block to buy one. If nobody has one, he'll likely only want one if he's a budding technology buff. Videos without rewinding
Time to toss your VCR to the dumpster? Perhaps not, but DVD is here to stay. The new format is the fastest-growing electronic appliance since TV itself. After only three years on the market, the players will be running in 12 percent of American homes by the end of the year, according to Adams Market Research. Retailers are licking their chops, hoping to sell lots of these this Christmas. Prices are falling rapidly, with many models dipping under $200. DVDs are to videotapes as CDs are to cassettes: Recording quality is far better, rewinding is unnecessary, and DVDs don't have the bulk and weight required by VHS. DVD's also offer features that were once only available on laserdiscs: better sound, widescreen pictures, extra scenes, and trailers. Studios love DVD because they're getting a swarm of new sales as collectors replace their VHS library with shiny new discs. DVD players can't record (yet) so users won't be tempted to tape a show off TV and watch it later (which is a good reason to hang onto the VCR). The video-game industry is switching to the format, too. Sony's upcoming Playstation 2 will use DVDs and will play regular movies, taking away the need for a separate player. The discs can hold more data than CDs, which lets designers create more elaborate games. Plus, DVD is fast becoming standard equipment on PCs, letting people watch movies on computers. For those with laptops, this becomes a chance to pick their own in-flight movie.

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