Most of us have a few relatives or friends who have never joined the wired world. Because of age, infirmity or lack of inclination, they haven't gotten around to buying a computer, or even learning to use one at the library or senior center.
Eventually, however, they may tire of hearing friends talk about getting messages from their kids or photos of their grandchildren via e-mail. They think, "Wouldn't it be nice if I could do that?" And so, the desire to become just a little bit wired has created a niche market for a gadget I call the granny-mail machine, or GMM.
The GMM is a single-purpose computer that handles e-mail only, over a dialup connection, and requires minimal technical skill on Grandma's part (I hereinafter incorporate into "Grandma" a generic reference to the unwired of all genders, ages and grandhood status).
For five years, one of the Grandmas in our family has happily used a Landel MailBug - a simple $150 e-mail device with a keyboard and eight-line, monochrome liquid crystal display. The MailBug is reliable and easy to manage, but it has two serious flaws: It can't print messages or receive attachments. So it's impossible to use this GMM to send pictures of grandchildren or other family members.
To fill this void in the market, Hewlett-Packard and a startup called Presto.com have joined forces with a one-way e-mail service and a stand-alone GMM that Hewlett Packard calls the A10 Printing Mailbox.
The A10 is a simplified, $100 color inkjet printer with enough built-in computing smarts to dial Presto's servers automatically up to five times a day, download Grandma's awaiting messages and print them automatically.
In particular, it will print photographs attached to the e-mail. Outside of retrieving her messages from the tray, the only reason for Grandma to touch the machine is to add paper or replace the print cartridge.
The Presto Service costs $10 a month, or $99 for a full year, which is a bit pricey for a service that is strictly e-mail and strictly one-way. But it was reliable and easy to use in my tests, and it might be all Grandma really needs. One caveat: If Granny really gets into the whole e-mail thing, you or she will spend some money on ink and paper - which is what HP gets from the deal. It's a no-brainer to sell a printer for $99 when you charge $35 a pop for ink cartridges that cost only a few bucks to produce.
Presto generally assumes that someone other than Grandma (you, for example) will manage the e-mail account, most likely from a PC with an Internet connection. Presto says customers without computer access can set things up directly with a call to a toll-free number, but I didn't try it that way.
As administrator, you provide Presto with your contact information, a credit card number, and the phone number from which Grandma's computer will be dialing. Then you can set up a schedule for dialing in for mail. While you're at it, you can choose a default type size (large, larger and really large) and select from a variety of e-mail styles, most of which have colorful borders or holiday themes that consume lots of ink.
Presto also offers regular delivery of puzzles, news and lifestyle features from Tribune Media Services (part of The Sun's parent organization), The Wall Street Journal and other sources. Once again, these will consume paper and ink, but if your recipient is a crossword fan like my mom or a Sudoku fanatic like my wife, they could be well worth the price in consumables.
Most importantly, the administrator initially decides who gets to send e-mail to Grandma. To avoid spam (which would be ruinously expensive on a printing computer), Presto operates on the "whitelist" principle. Only messages from e-mail addresses that you or Grandma specify will be delivered to the printer. It's easy to add correspondents online, and Grandma can snail-mail preprinted cards with a Web link and access code to correspondents she wants to add herself.
Presto implements these controls through a system of online menus and forms that's a model of clarity. I wish a few other Web designers would stop by to see how it's done.
So how well did this whole shebang work? Pretty well in my tests - if you're willing to accept Presto's limits. The Printing Mailbox phoned home right on schedule to retrieve e-mail (it uses a local access number or toll-free line, depending on your location). The machine downloaded mail into its memory - which tied up the phone line for a few minutes - and then printed the stored messages without a hiccup.
That said, the A10's print quality is nothing to e-mail home about. Although text is readable and photos recognizable, HP has dumped its ancient, three-color print cartridge technology on this machine. It produces blacks that are really muddy-purple or brown, so photos look slightly faded. Today's inkjets use at least three colors plus a black cartridge. So don't expect to send Grandma photofinisher-quality prints - you both would be disappointed.