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Corporate e-mail to call on cell phones

Japanese cell phone carrier NTT DoCoMo next week will launch a new corporate e-mail service that threatens to encroach on handheld makers' turf.

Japanese cell phone carrier NTT DoCoMo next week will launch a new corporate e-mail service that could pose a threat to manufacturers of handhelds for mobile professionals.

Starting July 17, NTT DoCoMo will give ordinary cell phones access to Microsoft and Lotus e-mail, contacts and calendar items. Most carriers already sell similar services but require customers to purchase specially made handhelds from Research In Motion, Good Technology, NEC and other manufacturers. Such devices can cost more than $200 each, whereas cell phones are often free when customers sign up with a carrier.

NTT DoCoMo partnered with Seven to deliver the new service, which the carrier calls BINWAN, or Business Interface for Web Access Network, said Bill Nguyen, co-founder of Redwood City, Calif.-based Seven.

RIM, the developer of the BlackBerry device, touted wireless corporate e-mail access years ago, but there are still relatively few users of the technology worldwide compared with the number of actual wireless device owners. The high cost of the handhelds is one of the reasons, Nguyen said.

"There are only a few hundred thousand BlackBerry users right now," he said. "There should be tens of millions."

Mark Guibert, vice president at RIM, said his company is "competitive in all the markets we serve." A representative from Good Technology was not immediately available for comment.

But some say bringing corporate e-mail to cell phones isn't all that it's hyped up to be. Typing a detailed response on a cell phone's cramped keypad is a notoriously difficult and long process, said Stefano Landi, PalmSource's senior manager of business development.

"There's no way I'm going to answer my e-mail" on a cell phone, he said.

Yet more carriers are likely to give it a try. Because NTT DoCoMo is the world's largest cell phone provider, other companies often follow its lead. Similar services will likely appear first in Japan. Japanese equipment maker NEC, which also sells products from Seven, said it's trying to convince other Japanese carriers to offer such services.

U.S. carriers Sprint PCS and Cingular Wireless, as well as European carriers O2 and Orange, use an earlier version of Seven products for their corporate subscribers. Nguyen said the carriers are deciding whether to upgrade to the new line of Seven products.