Tuesday, February 1, 2000

OmniSky goes head-to-head with the Palm VII


By Jason Perlow

For a while, the only way that you could experience wireless Internet access on a Palm device was using Novatel's Minstrel wireless modem for the Palm III and a PalmPilot Professional. While it did allow you to retrieve your email and do Web browsing on your device, the modem/Palm combination was bulky, and web browsing throughput was fairly slow due to the limited 19.2kbps bandwidth of the CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data) wireless standard.

Back in late May, Palm Computing released the Palm VII, with an integrated wireless modem and the Palm.Net wireless service. The Palm VII uses the PQA (Palm Query Application) standard that optimizes the device's even more limited bandwidth of 9600-14.4kbps. The idea is that Web Clippings (which must be pre-built and made available by a site's operator) grab Web site content via HTML queries, instead of attempting to fully browse a site. Unfortunately, the Palm VII got a rather lukewarm reception when it was first released because the price of the wireless service (delivered by Bell South) was both very expensive and priced per kilobyte used. Additionally, some people were disappointed that you couldn't use your existing email address and retrieve mail from your regular POP3 with the Palm VII -- you had to use a special Palm.Net address. And finally, the Web Clippings were limited; if you wanted to go to a site that didn't have a PQA, you were out of luck.

Introducing OmniSky

Enter OmniSky, a wireless services company that seeks to merge the best features of the Minstrel wirelesss modem with Palm.Net's Web Clipping. Their first product, an ultra-slim CDPD (i.e., Cellular Digital Packet Data) 19.2kbps modem for the Palm V with an accompanying wireless Internet service, began wide availability beta testing in late December of 1999. The modem, shown in Figure A, is actually the Novatel Minstrel V, which is exclusively produced for OmniSky.


The OmniSky modem mates very nicely with the Palm V. (click for larger image)

OmniSky's wireless service partner is AT&T, which provides CDPD service in most major metropolitan areas, as shown in Figure B.


OmniSky offers coverage in many areas of the United States. (click for larger image)

One of the reasons we're most interested in OmniSky is their plan for service. While an exact price hasn't been set, we're told it will be an unlimited use plan for under $50/month. This is radically different than what Palm.Net offers and may just be the killer reason to buy an OmniSky device -- if the rest of the product holds up to scrutiny.