Hotels and modems are like oil and water: nothing is worse than getting to your hotel after a long flight only to spend the next hour trying to configure your laptop to communicate. Although things have gotten somewhat better since I wrote my first PC Week column on this subject over 11 years ago, it still isn't great.
I have a radical notion for you travelers: give up your laptops! Some new services and products - coupled with better Internet access and Web browser ubiquity - have at least made it easier to get your email when on the road.
I haven't owned a laptop since January 1997, and, instead, make use of a series of local libraries, public terminals at various airports, and cybercafes. At worst, I've borrowed a client's computer and network connection. (A friend of mine mentioned how he once managed to "borrow" some bandwidth at an overseas Cisco office to get connected back home.)
To find a convenient cybercafe, search for that word, perhaps along with the name of the city you're visiting, in Yahoo or Lycos. Ernst Larsen also has a Java-based map with listings all over the world.
Using a cybercafe or a library can be cost-effective, since they offer good bandwidth at reasonable prices. Many cafes have T1 or other high-speed connections to the Internet, better than you would usually get using a 33.6 Kbps modem in your hotel room. And, their charges typically are under $10 per hour of access, which can be less than many hotels charge even for local phone calls of any duration.
Once you get to the cybercafe, there are several choices, depending on your circumstances. If you need your own email account, then check out one of the several free email services that are available (searching Yahoo for "free email" will uncover about a dozen). A few of these vendors, such as RocketMail and HotMail, offer email accounts that don't require special client software: you merely connect to their sites with your Web browser, enter your user name and password, and proceed to your email activities.
If you do decide to use these services when on the road, remember to clear the browser's cache and exit the program before leaving the computer. This is important when you are sharing a public machine, since some of these services can save your user information in memory, making it easy for the next person who uses this shared machine to gain access to your account.
If your mail server supports POP, then you can also use either ReadMail or MailStart. Point your browser to either service's site, type in your email ID and password, and in a few seconds these sites will retrieve your mail from your server. You can delete, reply, and save this mail just as you would any other POP account - the only difference is that these actions happen inside the browser's frame. [Please note the inherent security risks in these services: you're sending your password to a unknown third party via an unsecured Web connection, and that party in turn sends your password over an unsecured POP connection. -Glenn]
ReadMail has the better interface, and with both services you can leave your email on your server so you can download it to your desktop when you later return to the office. Both claim not to store any identifying information such as your password, but it is still a good idea to clear the cache and exit the browser if you are accessing these systems on a shared or public machine.
When I said earlier that I didn't use a laptop, I wasn't giving you the whole truth: I do carry a device to access my email when I am out and about, but that device is an AT&T PocketNet CDPD cell phone. The phone has a small but serviceable screen and can connect to my POP server. Replying with anything more than a few words is painful, but for getting mail quickly, it is a champ.
Another service you also might want to check into is eNow, which I haven't used. You set up an account with them and can hear your email being read to you via a phone call. Call 1-888-HEAR-E-NOW (1-888-432-7366) for a demo.
A warning: some of these services don't work if your POP server is behind a firewall, or if your ISP has turned off the capability to access the POP server from outside their network. And, if you aren't using a POP mail system, you are almost out of luck.
Almost, that is, unless you have an Internet gateway to your LAN-based mail system. There are other products that work as Web-based gateways to these mail servers: typically, you must first install them on a Web server that is part of your LAN. The Web-based gateway products don't always offer the same functionality found in a dedicated client: something - such as calendar access - is usually missing with these groupware products.
This is still an emerging field, and I am sure that there are many more products than I have highlighted here. Stay tuned to a page devoted to the subject for more links.
[David Strom is an author and researcher who covers electronic commerce, Internet servers, and developing Web technologies. This article originally appeared in Web Informant #92, 14-Nov-97. Article copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc. Web Informant is a (r) registered trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.]