Mobile e-mail heading for the masses

Carriers and other service providers are poised to give consumers cheap, easy access to personal e-mail on their regular phones.

Accessing e-mail from a cell phone is no longer just for corporate bigwigs. New services are arriving that make it easier and more affordable for everyone, from soccer moms to college students, to check and send messages from regular mobile handsets.

On Thanksgiving Day, a start-up called Berggi will launch a service that is intended to make accessing e-mail and sending instant messages easier on low-cost mobile phones.

Babur Ozden, chief executive of Berggi, said the service aggregates all personal e-mail and instant messaging clients into a single interface, for simpler access. And the service can be used on just about any handset, offering a less expensive alternative to corporate-based e-mail services from companies such as Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry handheld messaging device.

Berggi isn't the first company to promise easy access to e-mail on cell phones. Mobile operators have been integrating mobile e-mail and IM clients into their phones for more than a year. And access to mobile e-mail Web sites, such as those offered by Google and Yahoo, has also been available through a mobile WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) browser that offers stripped-down versions of the sites, specially designed for mobile phones.

But e-mail services on regular cell phones have not taken off. According to research firm Yankee Group, only about 6 percent of the 220 million cell phone users in the United States access e-mail from their mobile phones at least once a month. And only 4 percent use instant messaging on their mobile handsets.

Despite the low usage rates, consumers say they want e-mail on the go. For the past two years in a row, mobile e-mail has ranked among the top two services that consumers over the age of 34 say they want on their phones, according to Yankee Group research.

"The younger crowd is more interested in ring tones and text messaging," said Jill Aldort, a senior analyst at Yankee Group. "But if you look at people a little older, they want services that increase their productivity. So that means e-mail, location-based search, and navigation tools."

Experts say that two things have limited the adoption of mobile e-mail: ease of use, and price. Most consumers don't even realize they can access e-mail on their phones. Anyone with a WAP browser on their phone, which is pretty much anyone who has bought a new phone in the past two years, could access personal e-mail from a WAP-enabled site such as Google, Yahoo or Hotmail. But accessing e-mail this way is cumbersome and requires users to type a mobile address and click through several menus to access the e-mail service.

Some carriers, such as Cingular Wireless, have simplified the process to include the e-mail and IM functionality in their service menus. Using a downloadable e-mail client, powered by Oz Communications, that converts the e-mail into a format that can be seen on the small screen, Cingular subscribers can access their Yahoo, Hotmail or Google personal e-mail from their phones.

So far, the functionality, which has been available for a little more a year, has been limited to certain handsets. But more handsets are being added.

Cost and contract issues
Wireless operators have also not done a good job promoting mobile e-mail.

"I think a big part of this has been about managing the mobile operator's brand and controlling subscribers," Aldort said. "Sprint and Cingular are much more open about partnerships, while Verizon Wireless seems to still be grappling with whether they should open their networks to other brands."

The other big issues likely preventing users from trying mobile e-mail services are the cost of these services and the prospect of having to sign up for lengthy and expensive data contracts.

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