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Service checks email over phone

A California company called e-Now introduces a $12-a-month service to access email messages using the telephone.

You're at the airport when you remember that the person you're meeting with said there might be a change in the time and place. You didn't get a voice mail, and your laptop is being fixed--what if she sent you the change via email?

A company called e-Now is attempting to solve this high-tech problem with a low-tech instrument: the telephone.

Subscribers to the $12-per-month service call a toll-free number, enter a seven- to ten-digit ID number, and are given a summary of their messages (who sent it, the subject, and the date). They also can listen to their full email messages, read to them by a computerized voice.

The service is available to anyone with an Internet-accessible email account that uses the POP3 message protocol. In other words, corporate users with Net-based email as well as Hotmail members can use e-Now, whereas America Online, CompuServe, and other online service customers cannot.

"People very quickly become addicted to it," said Thomas Wagner, president of the Ojai, California-based company. "People are able to send our users information and know they're going to get it. It makes email more like voice mail."

Along with the standard message retrieval, users calling during business hours (8 a.m. to 6 p.m. PT) can press 0 to get to an operator, who can perform advanced functions such as forwarding or replying to messages. These services cost extra, typically about $1 to $3. For now, Wagner said these functions are fairly low-tech; to reply to a message, a user dictates it to an operator, who types and sends it.

Wagner added the company plans to add more services in the coming months, including a forwarding option where users can choose up to five email addresses to which they forward material often (e.g., a secretary or supervisor), and the user will be able to push a number on the phone to forward a message to one of those accounts automatically, 24 hours a day.

The basic service includes 20 minutes of toll-free access; extra minutes cost 15 cents each. In addition, e-Now is offering a service to companies that want to sign up 25 or more users at once. It will sign up the group with individual accounts but will bill the company as a whole each month for only the members who use the service.

Wagner admitted there are some problems with the computerized voice system, such as occasional pronunciation problems with names. But, he said, those of the company's 400 users who have mentioned problems have been able to understand the missing information based on the context of the message.

He also said the service is not able to get through any company firewalls or other security measures. "We can't get to anything we're not supposed to," he said, adding that the service is not meant to substitute for regular email access.

"This won't replace laptops or anything--it's $12 a month for a 'why not' service for people who use email a lot." Although we're almost at the "age of satellite modems, the fact is most people are always around a phone."