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Open-source software firm enters wireless territory

Sendmail, which sells software for email servers, acquires a company that makes software for accessing email via cell phones or the Web.

Following in the footsteps of larger competitors, an open-source software company is working to accommodate the arrival of wireless email.

Sendmail, a company that sells a proprietary version of open-source software for email servers, announced Tuesday the acquisition of Nascent Technologies, which makes software for accessing email via cell phones or the Web.

The acquisition is one in a series of moves designed to add features to Sendmail software. The basic, free version of the software has been used widely on email servers across the Internet for years.

Sendmail has stiff competition as it enters the wireless arena. On Tuesday, Sprint PCS said it will promote Hewlett-Packard's Openmail email software for businesses using wireless Internet access. And Sun Microsystems is improving the wireless access features of its iPlanet software.

Sendmail, based in Emeryville, Calif., is one of a handful of companies trying to make a go of selling proprietary versions of open-source software. Anyone can develop and distribute open-source software, so companies that want to charge for it must add features that others are willing to pay for.

As part of its business model, Sendmail wants to charge for proprietary extensions to the Sendmail program that make it easier to handle more email addresses and incorporate better security.

Nascent, based in Herndon, Va., originally developed server software that would let people send and receive email via the Web. That software is already an add-on to Sendmail's core email server software, and Sendmail has been reselling Nascent's package.

But even more important in the long term is wireless email access, Sendmail chairman Greg Olson said. Nascent's Mailspinner software incorporates Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) and iMode, two standards for using the Internet with a cell phone.

"Messaging is going to anywhere, anytime, any device. That's what people are excited about," Olson said. "Revenue from the wireless Web and Web clients will be significant, maybe on the order of 20 percent in the next few years."

Access to email via wireless devices is not as big a selling point yet as some companies had hoped.

But it is catching on, particularly as cell phone makers ink deals to include the functions of handheld computers. Kurt Hellstrom, chief executive of cell phone giant Ericsson, has predicted that cell phones will overtake PCs as the primary way to access the Net by 2003.

Terms of the Nascent acquisition weren't announced, but Olson said it is a stock and cash agreement with a multimillion-dollar value. Nascent's staff of 10, most of them programmers, will be added to Sendmail's 165 employees, and Sendmail will use the Nascent acquisition to launch a mid-Atlantic sales office.

Sendmail hasn't decided whether the Nascent software will be released as open source, Olson said. There are some components that could fit well as open source, but in general his company doesn't release as open source its proprietary additions to the basic Sendmail software.

The company's customers are mostly large companies and educational institutions, he said, but new software direction will increase the appeal of the software among telecommunications companies.

The acquisition opens a new direction for Sendmail: creating software that will process email depending on importance, content or other considerations. That sorting and routing of email is more important as people start reading email over cell phones or other devices, Olson said, because people who use email heavily typically want to read only the most important messages on cell phones.

"What you need is some intelligence in the network that will help you route those few (messages) appropriately," he said.

Mailspinner has been renamed Sendmail Mobile Message Server, the company said.