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Email goes retail

Mail Boxes Etc. and Microsoft will team up to let customers buy email accounts and send and receive messages from more than 3,300 retail centers worldwide.

First came products such as WebTV that provided consumers with a low-cost alternative to surf the Net. Now there's a way to get an email account without owning a device at all.

Mail Boxes Etc. (MBE) and Microsoft (MSFT) said today they would team up to let customers buy email accounts and send and receive messages from more than 3,300 retail centers worldwide. MBE will install terminals in each of its outlets and let customers send, receive, and retrieve unlimited amounts of email for perhaps $5 or $6 per month, company chief executive Tony Desio said today.

Desio cautioned that pricing had not been finalized, however. The company faces stiff competition and many users will choose other alternatives, but the deal shows how the popularity of email is creating new service options. Desio hopes the service can spread to a majority of MBE outlets within 6 to 12 months.

The company also plans to sell accounts for accessing the Internet, install in-store docking stations for customers to connect their laptops, and provide devices for videoconferencing, among other features. The rollouts will occur in stages.

The products are aimed at small businesses and business travelers--"road warriors," as Desio put it--but mainstream consumers may also find some features attractive. Some centers will be open 24 hours a day and accessible with keys that are issued to customers. They also will let users print their email or computer files.

Microsoft will help MBE develop the technology for the new services. The deal also gives the software giant yet another distribution outlet for its products. Software companies increasingly are turning to retail channels--Blockbuster video stores, for example--to boost distribution efforts.

MBE specializes in postal, business, and communications services, such as post office boxes. The company also eventually will begin selling stamps through the Internet terminals in its stores as part of the Microsoft deal.