BOSTON – By offering technology that allows people without computers to read e-mail, Presto Services Inc. took on a bold challenge.
Yet Presto and its Internet-connected printer, which spits out the e-mails, are remarkably well conceived.
I tested this service with my grandparents in California, ages 86 and 87, and thought of it as a dual experiment.
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While putting Presto through its paces, I wanted to see how people tuned to slower social rhythms felt about becoming more connected to today's constantly firing communications culture.
This is not a complete transformation, since Presto is one-way: Recipients get printed e-mails, but have no keyboard or computer screen for responding. For that reason, my grandfather told me he didn't think he'd enjoy Presto.
But it turned out that even being brought part way into the e-mail fold — which meant a steadier stream of photos of their three great-grandchildren — was elating.
Ultimately, my grandfather delivered such an effusive verdict that I suspect even Presto would tone his comments down in an advertisement, for believability's sake.
So let's just put it this way: They liked it so much I'm going to pay Presto to keep them on as customers ($100 for the printer, $100 a year for the e-mail service).
Here's how it works. First someone orders Presto's color printer — likely someone on the Web-connected side of the equation, since this is available mainly online, at least for now. (It also can be ordered by phone.)
The "Printing Mailbox" printer is custom-made for Presto by Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) It is simplified so it has a just a few buttons — including volume controls, since the printer chimes when it has delivered something.
It's pretty easy to get it going. The printer has to be plugged into an outlet and an active phone jack, and fed with the ink cartridge and plain white paper. (Twenty sheets are included.)
I had one ready within 15 minutes of opening the box. My grandfather needed a bit more time when he set his up, because it wasn't clear to him at first where the lone ink cartridge went.
Either before or after the printer is running, the Web-connected friend or relative uses Presto's Web site to activate the recipient's service. In addition to e-mail, Presto can deliver newspaper columns, recipes and puzzles.
The person who sets this all up is the "account manager," who can monitor settings on the Printing Mailbox remotely.
As account manager, I selected an e-mail address at Presto.com for my grandparents and assembled a "white list" of people who could send them messages.
Anyone not on the list is barred, to prevent spam.
Next, I set five times of day at which the printer would dial a local Presto phone number to retrieve messages (these times can be changed later), and chose how the e-mails would be formatted.
That included picking a 12-, 14- or 16-point font size (nothing too small, given the age of the Presto target market) and selecting borders for Presto to add.
Those colorful adornments are a clever touch, because they reduce the clinical look a printed e-mail would otherwise have. Festive templates can be chosen for holidays and birthdays, too.
But the default setting, which surrounds a message with green blocks, appeared to be an ink hog, at least as measured by my account manager's online dashboard.
I switched to a whimsical black squiggle, and the ink level hasn't dipped much since.
Replacement ink cartridges — the printer accepts either of two standard HP models — run at least $25 each, in stores or online. The account manager's dashboard includes a link.
Another thoughtful touch is that Presto prints the last page of an e-mail first. That means the stack that greets the recipient is as user-friendly as possible, with the first page on top. And photos sent as attachments are automatically printed following the text of a message.
E-mails to a Presto user don't instantly appear on the printer. That's because the printer dials in for messages only five times a day (it delays a call if someone is on the phone).
But if a Presto recipient knows something is coming and can't wait, he can perform a little hack to make the printer go out and check: holding down the device's stop button and hitting the volume-up button twice.
Why not just add a "check my messages now" button? I had to respect Presto CEO Raymond Stern's answer: Invariably, people would press it often and rarely find a message waiting.
"That would be more frustrating to the end users," Stern said. "It's the 'nobody loves me' button."
Presto debuted over the 2006 holiday season, and it struck me that an e-mail printer might have been more fulfilling a few years earlier, before sharing video and audio became a bigger part of the online experience. But that's probably a minor quibble, at least as my grandparents see it.
My grandfather said Presto e-mails are better than a letter, because they are more timely. He also realized that a regular series of short e-mailed updates revealed the texture of my family's life in more detail than he could glean in a phone call, even if we talked every week.
When you're 86 and 87, such new sources of joy aren't always easy to come by. That's a huge point for Presto, even if it's not cheap.