Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.


Last week's Switched On delved into Celio's REDFLY, an austere smartphone accessory designed for enterprise users who manage their digital lives on their smartphones. REDFLY has faced scrutiny from the geek elite who have noted that, for about the same price as a REDFLY, one can get an independently functioning netbook that does so much more. A similar argument has also been levied at Peek, a wireless e-mail appliance that delivers only a part of what most smartphones can do.

But the two products could hardly be more different. Whereas REDFLY is a smartphone companion, Peek is a smartphone alternative featuring a slim design and a commitment to simplicity that borders on obsession. For example, Peek, like many modern smartphones, will attempt to guess your mail server information by your e-mail address. But if your e-mail address stumps it, there is no way to enter a server name or IP address manually. This omission is intentional, according to Peek, which didn't want consumers to have to find out technical settings. Instead, customers are directed to contact the company's support line where a customer service representative will set up the account for them.

The approach is in lockstep with the device's target market -- busy and less technical consumers, particularly young mothers, who find themselves increasingly dependent on e-mail and don't want the complexity of a smartphone or the high cost of running one on a 3G network. Peek provides an alternative to a growing movement within the cellular industry to force minimal data plans on advanced phones. And for consumers who find carrier stores less than inviting, Peek is sold at Target, and it works.
Those skeptical that any e-mail-only device could find market acceptance should recall that early Blackberry devices -- from which Peek has borrowed the scroll wheel-driven popup menu interface -- ran on paging networks with no voice support. Blackberry didn't hit its stride until it became available from major U.S. carriers. However, for years after that even many devoted Blackberry handset users maintained a separate cell phone for voice.

Peek enjoys a large target market and says it can be wildly successful if it captures even a small fraction of it. But while Peek likely won't have to do as much proselytizing on the value of wireless e-mail access as RIM did for many years, it will need to get out its message like any new brand and idea. That is more challenging without the power of carrier distribution. However, the product received a literal vote of confidence this week when it was voted by readers as Time magazine's Gadget of the Year (an honor nearly as prestigious as the Switchie). It received nearly three times the number of votes as the second-ranking Apple's MacBook, a product that could be expected to attract a far greater number of online activist platform zealots.

The company likens its product's positioning to Pure Digital Corp's popular, compact, simple and affordable Flip video camera, which has succeeded in the face of digital cameras that can capture video of comparable quality. But there's at least one important difference. Peek requires a $19.95 per month subscription, which is more expensive than the one that which limited the appeal of the pricier Dash Express connected portable navigation device. Dash has announced that it is exiting the consumer hardware business and focusing on providing its network services to other manufacturers. Time and again, new device categories that require recurring charges have faced a tough time at retail.

But Peek, which is one of those products that is as much about where it is sold as what it does, may be able to capitalize on somewhat of an exception to the rule. Pre-paid cell phones sell very well at mass merchant retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart and few pre-paid phones among the museum pieces offered by Tracfone or even those from the hip Virgin Mobile and major carriers offer anything close to the Peek experience today. As cheap QWERTY feature phones continue to enter the market, though, Peek will have to take a long look ahead as it bucks convention and convergence.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.