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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.

Research In Motion's BlackBerry and other services for smart devices, like Palm's Treo, have made accessing e-mail on a mobile device as simple as doing it on a computer. But the phones are expensive, often costing well over $200, even with a service contract. What's more, the service providers require peopleto sign multiyear contracts for data packages.

"Most people don't know if the e-mail services are useful," said Berggi's Ozden, whose service is available on a monthly basis. "If they can try it out without extending their contract or signing up for an additional data service, maybe they will try it."

But that too is changing. Smart phone manufacturers are teaming up with mobile operators to create low-cost, fully functioning smart phones geared toward consumers. For example, , which is sold through T-Mobile. T-Mobile is also offering the dual-mode, Wi-Fi-to-cellular phone called the Dash. Both of these phones are priced around $200. And Motorola has introduced the Q, which Verizon is now selling for $99 with a rebate. The two-year data plans with voice minutes start as low as $70 a month.

Will data-packaging strategies work?
Even though smart phones are getting cheaper, analysts believe they still appeal to professional users. These "prosumers," as they are called, are people whose professional lives and personal lives have blended together. They use their cell phones not only for staying in touch with friends and family, but also for business. And even though they may not be high enough on the corporate food-chain to expense a BlackBerry or Treo, they want to get their business e-mail on their phones.

"I think RIM would like soccer moms to be using the Pearl," Aldort said. "But the reality is they aren't there yet. Smart phones are still designed and priced for business users who are also consumers."

The majority of cell phone users today view their phones primarily as a communication device. And even though voice is still the killer application for cell phones, customers are increasingly using phones for SMS (short message service) text messaging.

E-mail could be another logical step in the evolution of mobile messaging. Still, analysts warn that consumers are extremely price sensitive, and they are willing to pay only so much every month for all the services they get with their cell phones.

"Carriers really have to show people the value proposition for these services," said Charles Golvin, a principal analyst with Forrester Research. "As e-mail clients get embedded into more phones, I think carriers will have an easier time marketing this value proposition. But they have to keep pricing to about $5 to $10 per month."

Cingular has already taken this route with its integrated e-mail and IM service. The carrier doesn't charge extra for the service, but people must pay for data usage. The company recommends people pay between $9.99 and $19.99 per month for a data package that includes e-mail and IM messaging, along with text messaging and wireless Web surfing.

Yankee Group's Aldort believes this is where Berggi's service could run into problems. Even though the company says its service simplifies e-mail access, people still have to pay their cell phone operator for data usage. And the Berggi service costs an additional $9.99 per month.

"That price is just too high," Aldort said. "Only a third of people with a cell phone are willing to spend any additional money for data services. And those that are spending only want to spend between $10 and $12 a month for everything, including Web browsing, e-mail and ring tones."