Tech Flashback: Pocketmail

So you’re out in the bush, or in unfamiliar territory. Wireless mobile data is extremely expensive or entirely unavailable, high speed broadband just a dream. Say you’re a corporate exec, and you needed to read and reply to e-mails, maybe you have an analog mobile phone or access to payphones or hotel payphones. Don’t have an expensive laptop? Too heavy, bulky?

What to do? Pocketmail of course!

Pocketmail was a PDA type device which featured an acoustic coupler modem which you could slap onto a phone after dialling a number and download/upload e-mails over the phone. The PDA itself had memory internally to store e-mails awaiting transmission, and ran off two AA batteries. It had an EL backlight, a QWERTY keyboard and (strangely enough) was nominated as one of CNET.com’s Top 10 Worst Products.

The back of the box – look at that reasonable price! From the fact that GST was included, we can tell this was sold after 1st July 2000 (the introduction of GST).

The listed features on the side of the box are nothing to shout about, but here they are:

The device itself comes with a manual, guide and CD-ROM.

Here’s the device itself, closed, and the RS-232 data link cable that uses a 2.5mm connector. Pressing the button on the top cover initiates the send-receive process which involves trying to make a modem connection to the Pocketmail server through the acoustic coupler on the back of the device. You would dial the number, then hold the device up to the phone, push the button and … (modem sounds) – PocketMail Negotiation Sound. The progress would be indicated with the LEDs next to that button.

The back of the device itself – note the special flip-out microphone with adjustable distance to allow the device to adapt to different phones. The microphone has a rubber gasket which allows the microphone to seal better over the speaker in the phone allowing more reliable data transfer. The battery door is locked with a switch, and there is a reset button as well.

The device, when it is opened. Monochrome LCD, rubberized buttons around the LCD and on the bottom panel emulating a QWERTY keyboard, however, due to the size and feel, it’s a bit less convenient and is more like a thumb-board.

Turning on the device reveals the password screen. The EL backlight is turned on in this shot.

And here’s the main menu, just for laughs. Which concludes the tour of the device.

Unfortunately, the PocketMail company disappeared in 2010 without a trace, there was no explanation and phone-in services are gone. Without the dial-in services, the devices themselves are useless. Interestingly, the service was still operating up to 2010, despite peaking in popularity in 2000. The service required an ongoing subscription to use, and the modems were relatively slow due to the acoustic coupling mechanism and modems integrated into the devices (likely to be 300-2400bps).

It was a good idea, however, the lack of multimedia e-mail, and the limited speeds and widespread internet access made the idea much less fashionable. And so it died off.

I never actually got to use PocketMail myself, this was another “chance” save from someone who was throwing it out. Some of their personal details are still on the device.

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