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Always Keeping In Touch

Tired of hassling with separate work, home and cell phone voice mailboxes? Do you have separate email accounts for home and work? Different fax numbers at separate locations? More than one beeper?

Wouldn't it be nice to have all of them integrated into one easy-to-use system - and not have this cost a fortune? CBS News ' Alexandra Cosgrove reflects on the merits of some new devices lurking on the horizon.

Why shouldn't the idea of a 2-ounce, fits-in-your-pocket phone-fax-computer be more than the fantasy of a sci-fi writer?

Plenty of entrepreneurs are dreaming of the big bucks to made by finding this all-in-one communications magic wand. Some of the companies involved sport names such as TelePost, OneBox, InfoActive and I-Link. All are looking for easy and inexpensive ways to accomplish this goal.

Part of my job at CBS News is to equip Washington reporters and producers to work on the road. That used to mean handing rolls of quarters, pads of paper, pens and restaurant recommendations.

These days, it means laptops, cell phones, beepers, printers and palm pilots. Trust me, reporters liked it better the old way. "I'll be in touch," they'd say, happily hailing a taxi. These days, the bosses tell the reporters to keep in touch.

To try to ease the tele-pain, I checked out one of these all-in-one services that seemed to have an attractive plan and price: ThinkLink. (By next week, there could be 10 new companies in the field.)

There are no set-up charges or monthly fees. ThinkLink offers 5-cents-a-minute, outbound domestic calling (faxes, forwarding and original calls) anytime, anywhere at rates far lower than some of the leading long-distant carriers. All local calls are free. A call to the local ThinkLink number lets someone make long-distance calls for only 5 cents per minute.

Or when traveling away from home, place a long-distance call through the ThinkLink's 800 number like a calling card at 15 cents per minute.

ThinkLink offers call forwarding and follow-me features. Give friends, family, co-workers and business contacts your ThinkLink number. When they reach ThinkLink, they can leave a voice message or be forwarded to a number you designate. All of this can be customized at the ThinkLink Web site.

The company recently announced a new partnership with email provider Commtouch to offer a Web-based "Unified Messaging"system. Consumers will be able to receive an all-in-one option, whereby voice mail, email and faxes can be accessed from a single phone number, one Web page or a pager for a low price.

While other companies take advantage of this Internet Protocol technology, probably few have complete mail/phone/fax integration at a low price. Many, if not all, offer 5-cents-a-minute options, but hey often include monthly fees and various long distance rates.

Each company is trying to offer something unique. I-Link promises a feature called Call Whisper, a type of call-waiting feature. If you're on a call and receive another, V-Link One "whispers" the new caller's recorded name, so only you hear it. Choose to take the call, send the caller to voice mail or even another person. It also allows you to place calls on hold and provides background music. touts InfoActiv, allowing users to access an answering machine, bank balances and credit card balances.

OneBox is marketing a service so you can read mail on your wireless handset - and respond to it in your own voice.

TelePost promises on-demand teleconferencing without operators, reservations or high prices.

So who wants these devices?

ThinkLink, for one, is targeting college students, Gen Y-ers who are always on the go, increasingly wired in and usually short of money. As students travel between school, home, work and play, organizing their electronic accounts and gaining access from anywhere is a major priority. And from a student's perspective, cheaper is better. But it probably won't be long until most people are using a system like this.

Mark Winther, a telecom analyst for World Wide Telecommunications, sees products like these as the way to go. "The big telcos don't get it. They want to charge for every feature," he observes. Currently the major carriers charge extra for call forwarding, follow-me and other options that new companies provide for free. All the phone companies have to do is "add the Web" to their system, charge one fixed price and they'd "corner the market," he says.

There are some downsides to products like these. Some new technology may make even their state-of-the-art approaches obsolete.

The big problem is the notion of 24/7, the feeling of being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, of never being out of touch. It used to be you would go to work, put in eight hours and go home. Your time away from work was your own.

Now employers think nothing of tracking you down at all hours of the day, often with such mundane requests as "Where did you leave the stapler?" Granted, this is a great feature if you're a working parent with children needing to stay in touch or if you're a teen-ager who can't be left out of the social loop.

But even some teens are finding this instant access a little overwhelming. It's one more way for Mom and Dad to know their every move. It's even spawned an increase in little white lies: "I didn' get a page, Mom. The batteries must have died."

It's bad enough to be o a pager all the time, but do you really want to instantly get all your email forwarded, that offer for a free vacation, the latest round of dirty jokes circulating through the office or the reminder about the basketball pool? Do you really want to get those at 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night while you're out on the town?

Yes, you can turn off the pager, but what if there's a legitimate work emergency? Most employers wouldn't be very happy if you disconnected the very item they gave you to always keep in touch.

The pressure of always being available is horrifying to many, exhilarating to others. For better or worse, the time is here where you can always "reach out and touch someone" and, of course, get touched back.