Image: IMFree
The IMfree, which looks like a bit like an overgrown beeper, comes with a battery, a charger and a little USB base station.

“Just what the world needs,” I thought at first, “another portable device that does one task and one task only.” But Motorola’s new wireless instant messaging device was never intended for the likes of me and it may just be perfect for its target audience.

InsertArt(1905967)INTRODUCING THE IMfree, a cordless phone-like device for the generation that uses instant messaging more than the phone. With IMfree, children can IM to their hearts’ delight anywhere in their homes — or at least until the batteries need recharging.

Motorola is marketing IMfree to young teens, and to young teenage girls in particular, because they found this group was a heavy user of instant messaging services. (Girls take to it immediately. Boys begin taking to it when they want to begin chatting with girls.)

Like a cordless phone, IMfree works through a hub that must stay in one place — in other words, no taking this device to school. But that may not matter much to a young girl who’d rather IM her friends from her bedroom, even if the computer is in the living room or den. And her parents may appreciate being able to use the computer again.

HOW IT WORKSAt first glance, the device looks like an overgrown pager (not surprising since Motorola makes pagers). It is 4.5 by 4.8 by 1.3 inches, weighs in at a hefty 9 ounces and has a 9-line, black and white display.

To use IMfree, you must attach its base unit via a USB port to your home computer, preferably one with a broadband (DSL or cable modem) connection to the Web. The PC (no support for Macs yet) must then be on and running special software which allows up to seven IMfree devices to communicate on the Internet and permits users access to their IM buddy lists. The software runs in the background, however, allowing you to do other tasks while IMfrees are in use.

The software also comes with built-in parental controls allowing adults to limit who can send messages to the handheld and block certain chat invitations. Parents can also disable individual handsets manually, or use the software to set limits, automatically disabling the handheld during certain times of the day.

The device itself communicates with its base station on public 900 MHz frequencies, just like a cordless phone. Under the best conditions the maximum range is also like that of a cordless phone: 150 feet.

Assuming you can type quickly, you can conduct up to six IM conversations at the same time on the IMfree. At the moment, the device only works with AOL Instant Messenger, which you can sign-up for for free without subscribing to AOL. Other instant messaging services may be an option in the future.

THE REAL CRITICSI played with IMfree for a few minutes and thought it was a good idea - but I’m not anywhere near the target audience. So, I had Motorola send one to my niece and nephew in Florida to get a true view of how IMfree’s intended users will like it.

Courtney, age 13, thinks they’ve targeted her needs perfectly:

“I was so excited when the package arrived and could not wait to get started with it. The set up required a little assistance from my brother and mom, but once I got it working, I thought it was the greatest thing since the cell phone. “The best thing about it is the connection. We have it hooked up to our DSL, so I am able to access it anytime. I also really like how easy it is to work. It works faster than my computer (via modem) and doesn’t take up a phone line. (My brother has the DSL connection on his computer). “I also really enjoy the ability to walk around my house or sit by the pool and still be able to “talk” online. It is very efficient.”Older brother Bradley, age 16, who uses the host computer for gaming and school tasks, is a bit more skeptical about the IMfree:

“(It’s) an interesting idea, but due to its size and requirements it becomes a little impractical. First, it is fairly large and quite wide. Its (QWERTY) keyboard is in a computer format, but the keys are so small and can only be used by thumbs. Its connection is of normal DSL quality, but slows down my host computer. “Also, the host PC has to be on along with the Internet connection. This is not good for my computer. Once again the size comes into play. It is impractical to use this as a normal object such as a cell phone. In conclusion, it is a good idea, but needs to have its own connection, needs to be smaller and it should be more user-friendly.”Motorola has set a $99.99 retail price for the package which comes with one IMfree unit, one USB base station, a rechargeable NiMH battery, a battery charger and the software. Additional messaging units will be sold separately.

Overall, it seems to me to be a great way to allow people of any age to keep in touch via instant messaging — wirelessly — anywhere in their home. But, it appears to be particularly well suited to its target audience — and for that, Motorola should be congratulated.

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