The following is an article that I published in this newsletter on September 16, 1996. I described the latest high-tech tool of the time. Looking at the advances in technology since then, this article describes an "antique" by today's standards but I was very impressed with it at the time.
Compare the technology of this text-only gadget of only fourteen years ago with today's iPhones, Android phones, and other wireless handheld devices we see everywhere today. A lot has changed in fourteen years! I wonder what electronic devices will be common fourteen years from now, in 2024?
Written September 16, 1996:
I have been using SkyTel’s newest two-way pocket pager for 4 weeks now. It has been invaluable on this week’s trip. I have sent and received e-mail while seated in a restaurant. I also rescheduled a business meeting at the last moment while driving a rental car to the meeting. I checked the weather report back home even when I was in Ohio. All of this was done with a tiny wireless device that is smaller than the proverbial pack of cigarettes.
The SkyWriter is a brand-new unit from SkyTel. It replaces the earlier two-way pocket pager that SkyTel has been advertising for more than a year. The SkyWriter looks like a regular pocket pager, and it clips on the belt like any other pager. It is slightly larger than most pocket pagers but offers a lot more capability. This one sends e-mails as well as receiving. It has its own Internet e-mail address. Each SkyTel two-way pager has an e-mail address of a 7-digit number followed by “@skytel.com.”
I previously carried SkyTel’s original two-way pocket pager but found it lacking technically. I talked with SkyTel’s technical support department several times about the problems, and they admitted that I was hitting design limitations in the unit. It could reply to Internet e-mails but could not originate messages to an Internet address. Also, it was limited to only 16 pre-programmed messages. Creating a custom message required a Hewlett-Packard palmtop computer plus a custom cable and custom software to make the units talk to each other. I purchased those, but carrying multiple units and cables at all times certainly wasn’t convenient. Even with the palmtop I was still unable to originate Internet e-mail messages.
SkyTel received the first shipment of their new SkyWriter two-way pagers about four weeks ago and shipped one to me at my hotel when I was attending the annual Federation of Genealogical Societies’ convention in Rochester, NY. I used it that week in Rochester but didn’t really have a chance to explore its capabilities. Since then I have learned its ins and outs and have given the new pager’s Internet e-mail address to several friends, relatives and business associates. This week’s trip was the first in which I was able to put the new pager to good use. I actually solved a customer’s software problem in Massachusetts by e-mail while seated in a Mexican restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. An hour later I received a request to reschedule a business meeting at the last moment while driving to the site of the meeting. I confirmed the new date and time via an e-mail to that person’s CompuServe address and then turned around. (I did pull off the highway and park the rental car before composing my e-mail reply.)
The SkyWriter two-way pager is fully self-contained. It doesn’t require any palmtop PC or other external units. However, it also does not have a keyboard. Composing e-mail messages on this unit is a bit tedious. The unit ships from the factory with 16 preprogrammed messages. These are rather simple messages such as “Yes,” “No,” “Will call later,” “Will arrive in 15 minutes,” “Stuck in traffic” and other commonly used texts. You can modify each of these, and you can also add others of your choosing. You send any of these pre-composed messages by selecting the appropriate one from a list and pressing “Enter.”
In addition, the user has the option of composing a new message each and every time. Entering the text is somewhat like the electronic equivalent of a Dymo Labelmaker. A list of the full alphabet plus numerals and punctuation marks appears on the bottom of the screen. The user moves the cursor through this list of characters and selects each character one at a time by pressing the “Enter” key. It is tedious, but it works well and is faster than it sounds. I don’t think anyone will ever write the Great American Novel with one of these units, however.
SkyTel advertises their pagers as having nationwide coverage. In reality, they cover all metropolitan areas in the United States. The pagers do not function in rural areas where the nearest SkyTel “node” is many miles away. Anyone who is a ham radio operator will recognize these units as being miniaturized packet radio units that operate on commercial frequencies.
A normal one-way pager can lose messages as the system has no way of determining if the message was ever received by the intended recipient. Anyone out of pager range does not receive the message, and the person trying to reach someone by pager has no method of verifying receipt. Two-way pagers solve this problem as the pager network waits for an automatic acknowledgment to be received back from the two-way pager. If the acknowledgment is not received within a few minutes, the message is sent again and again until the acknowledgment is received. In SkyTel’s network, a timer is set at 12 hours. If the receiving two-way pager does not send an acknowledgment within 12 hours, the message is canceled and an error message is sent back to the originator.
The thing that excites me is the thought of querying online genealogy databases by wireless e-mail. In the future you will have online access to genealogy databases. A few have already appeared on the World Wide Web and elsewhere, but they are small and limited in scope. Future databases may contain 200 million or 500 million records. Imagine a scenario where you are looking at old records in a county courthouse or conducting an interview with an elderly second-cousin whom you just met for the first time. A name is mentioned and you want to query a database. You no longer have to leave the courthouse or the second cousin’s home to conduct the query; you can do this while still “on site.” Answers will be received in a few minutes, not hours or days later.
My suggestion to the developers of online genealogy databases: Please make sure that your database can be queried by e-mail as well as by the World Wide Web or other online access. Your customers want immediate access at the time and place of need, not many hours later when they return home. Limiting access to the World Wide Web will reduce your database’s usefulness. Please insure that e-mail access is easy to handle with a minimum number of bytes required to transfer data across the wireless networks. Your customers will thank you!
For more information about SkyTel’s products, look at: http://www.skytel.com. However, the last time I looked they didn’t mention the new SkyWriter units. These are brand new and apparently are available only in limited quantities. I think SkyTel will start advertising them once they have sufficient quantities to keep them in stock.
[End of article written September 16, 1996]
NOTE: The old SkyTel Corporation is still in business but has entered new lines of business. However, the company still maintains a web site at http://www.skytel.com