CHEAP: Own a (completely non-functional) piece of Internet history for just $50

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Regular readers of TNW will know we have a regular column called CHEAP. There we share interesting deals on tech products across the Internet. Most of the stuff unearthed has some actual practical value: like phones and tablets.

This isn’t one of those.

In researching today’s post, I stumbled across the Sharp TM-20 TelMail E-Mail Organizer, which has dropped in price from $118.31 to $50. This device was introduced over twenty years ago, and at the time, allowed people to access email without the need for a computer.

This pocketable device came with an acoustic coupler modem. If you wanted to send and receive new messages, you went to a phone booth and dialed a toll-free number, placing the receiver close to the device. Because of the limits of the device’s storage, plus the fact that dial-up internet is inherently slow, messages were limited to 4,000 characters long.

Despite that, it was almost futuristic. It came with a full QWERTY keyboard. While there were no downloadable apps, it came bundled with several things we now carry in our pockets: an alarm clock, calendar, address book, and memo pad software.

Reading some of the Amazon reviews, which date to 2000, feels a bit like peering back through time to a long-forgotten era. Here’s my favorite:

Used the Sharp TM 20 on a recent 9500 mile trip to Alaska, travelling thru British Columbia, Yukon Territory, Alaska, Alberta,Canada, Montana, Idaho, Nevada and home and the only time I ever had a problem was on an occasional payphone, once in Edmonton, Alberta and another time in Skagway, Alaska. Works on any phone other than digital cell, public phones are a breeze, pick up the receiver, dial an 800 number and send/receive at the same time. Not even a coin needed. Didn’t have to call home one time in a two and one half month trip- pocketmail did it all!!

Here’s another:

MY HUSBAND, THE TRUCK DRIVER, CAN NOT LIVE WITHOUT THIS EMAILER DEVICE. HE IS ADDICTED TO IT AND POUTS WHEN HE DOES NOT GET AN EMAIL FROM ME. THE SERVICE FROM POCKETMAIL COMES AT A REASONABLE PRICE AND SAVES US AT LEAST $20.OO A MONTH IN PHONE CALLS. WE STAY IN CONTACT AND IT HELPS HIM TO STAY CLOSE EVEN WHEN HE IS AWAY FROM HOME. HE IS, HOWEVER, CONSTANTLY BOMBARDED WITH QUESTIONS AND CURIOSITY FROM OTHER DRIVERS WHO HAVE NEVER SEEN THIS DEVICE. IT IS SO SUCCESSFUL, I BOUGHT A SECOND ONE FOR MY DAUGHTER WHO LIVES IN ARIZONA. A MUST HAVE IF YOU ARE A TRAVELER WHO NEEDS TO STAY IN TOUCH WITH HOME.

Of course, there are more recent reviews which are less glowing. One posted in August, 2019, has the title: “Device cannot use email.”

“This device cannot possibly do what the seller says. Dont fall for the lies.”

Of course, there’s a reason why the Sharp TM-20 doesn’t work anymore. Firstly: payphones are no longer a thing. You can thank Nokia for that.

Also, the company that operated the email servers, PocketMail, discontinued the service over a decade ago. The circumstances behind this are especially interesting.

According to public documents, PocketMail rebranded to Avadle Resources Limited, and pivoted to — wait for it — uranium mining.

I look forward to the day when WeWork decides trendy office space isn’t its bag and starts developing cluster munitions. But until then, I can reconcile myself with owning a bargain bit of tech history for just $50.

Sure, it’ll just be a useless brick. But maybe it’ll be worth something one day?


This post includes affiliate links to products that you can buy online. If you purchase them through our links, we get a small cut of the revenue.

For more gear, gadget, and hardware news and reviews, follow Plugged on Twitter and Flipboard.

Published September 8, 2019 — 22:11 UTC

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