IMs Away From the Computer

According to reliable reports, the single greatest threat to productivity is the American teenager — to be more precise, one addicted to instant messaging, and therefore monopolizing the family computer at all hours of the day.

Parents desperate to reclaim their computers don’t have many appealing options. The most common one may be plunking down several hundred bucks for another computer, then configuring a shared Internet connection and any necessary parental controls. Less ambitious IM options — for instance, BlackBerry handhelds or cell phones with text-messaging capability — require monthly fees.

Motorola has come up with a different, simpler and cheaper option aimed at frustrated parents with text-happy kids. The $100 IMfree Wireless Instant Messenger is a handheld unit that allows a user to chat with as many as six buddies from within 150 feet of the primary computer (Windows 98 Second Edition or newer and a USB port are required). Since it logs on to America Online’s free AIM service, there are no fees after the purchase price.

The blue-and-silver unit took only a few minutes to set up for our DSL connection. (Users with dial-up access have a few more setup steps.) Its monochrome display allows for only nine lines of text — of which only six are available for conversation. This screen was visible indoors and in direct sunlight, but there’s no backlight for use in the dark.

Motorola’s miniature keyboard follows the standard QWERTY layout and is comfortable to type on with thumbs, except that its send key (which replaces “enter”) is difficult to reach.

The range estimates may be low. I walked nearly a city block before getting a warning message and a beep, indicating that the connection was about to vanish. Once back in range, I resumed my conversation without a problem. A rechargeable battery is rated to last for four hours of continuous use.

Putting instant messaging, something normally done with a full-size keyboard and screen, in a pocket-size device involves some sacrifices. The IMfree doesn’t support Microsoft’s or Yahoo’s competing IM services, and its support of AIM doesn’t extend beyond text and a basic set of 12 emoticons — leaving out buddy icons, pictures, Web links and file transfers.

Adding or removing somebody from a buddy list can be done only from the primary computer. (The same goes for adjusting parental controls and a few other options.)

Those, however, are minor quibbles. The IMfree seems likely to be warmly welcomed, given the price and the ability to link as many as seven IMfree units to one PC.

Its most serious limitation may be that it can’t be used beyond sight of the home. Depending on the age of their children involved, that may be an advantage in many parents’ minds.

Older kids will most likely prefer to message their friends anywhere, and they’ll have to look to other wireless widgets. For them, a cell phone that handles text messaging (which these days means pretty much all cell phones) is the logical option. The primary shortfall there is the maddening task of typing text on a phone’s numeric keypad, which can require as many as four keystrokes to produce just one letter.

Keyboard-equipped phones and handhelds such as the BlackBerry, sold by most wireless carriers, are a step up in utility, ease of use and cost (figure $200 and up, plus monthly fees). With their thumb-compatible keyboards usually come e-mail and basic Web access.

Finally, there are WiFi-enabled handheld organizers, costing $400 or more. They can connect to WiFi access points at home and in public “hot spots,” some free, some not. Such a device has much of the capability of a low-end computer.

Then again, its cost will also approach that of a full-size computer. So the decision may come down to this: How much money did the summer job bring in?

Source: Washington Post

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