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Mobile E-mail for Free

A new wireless service will provide its subscribers with e-mail at no cost for even the most basic mobile devices.

A new wireless service, which is scheduled for launch in France by the end of this month, will offer access to e-mail for free. The wireless service, called Freedom Mail, will make it possible for subscribers to view and respond to e-mail message on a cell phone or other mobile device regardless of whether or not it’s a smart phone.

Behind the service is SetNet, a Silicon Valley-based company founded in 1993 by Nick Fodor that is the largest provider of wireless e-mail. The company currently offers its technology to service providers, who partner with cell-phone carriers. But now SetNet is taking its technology and creating its own free mail service, supported by advertisements in outgoing e-mail. The company plans to make the free service available in the United States in a few months, following its release in Europe. “Freedom Mail is for the rest of us, for those who don’t have Blackberries but still use e-mail in everyday life,” says Fodor, a computer programmer and the CEO of SetNet.

Currently, if a mobile-phone user wants to have e-mail connectivity through her mobile device, she must either buy a pricey data service through her carrier and have a smart phone, or the subscriber must use a carrier that is partnered with an e-mail client.

The plan for Freedom Mail comes at a time when the biggest players in the market–Research in Motion, Visto, and Microsoft–are locked in a fight over patents. In particular, Visto claims that it invented the idea of wireless electronic mail and mail synchronization. But Fodor worked on “push” e-mail services in the early 1990s, before developing his own synchronization software through Compuserv in 1993. Thus, Fodor’s Freedom Mail, which uses technology that’s similar to that which Visto claims to have patented, could undermine any further legal claims by Visto if the technology proves to have been developed before Visto laid down patent rights in 1999.

“The technology at the heart of the Visto patent is a smart caching system that SetNet has used for 10 years, and [it’s] also what invalidates the patent because we have done it way before they existed,” says Fodor. “Freedom Mail will liberate wireless e-mail from expensive and spurious litigation driven by very few patent owners for the sole purpose of dominating global wireless e-mail communications.”

Freedom Mail will enable wireless subscribers to retrieve their current personal e-mails from Internet service providers, including Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, and Gmail, on basic cell phones. The subscriber doesn’t have to go through his carrier; instead, he just sends a text message with his e-mail address to a number specific to the user’s country. Freedom Mail will then confirm the e-mail address and send the subscriber back a bookmark through text. The bookmark is a URL, and when the user clicks on the URL and opens it in a browser, it marks the page. Anytime a user wants to see his e-mail account, he clicks on the bookmark, and all new e-mails will be listed.

The service will be paid for through advertisements that will be appended to messages. For now, users will only see the ads when they send a message, not when they read e-mails. And the ad will be based on a user’s profile after she has filled out a short questionnaire about the type of advertising she wants to see. The user can also accept advertisements based on keywords, for which she will receive points, and if the subscriber accepts full advertising, she will get to use premium features for free.

“Freedom Mail is a good idea, but they have a big road to climb,” says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computers at Gartner, an information and technology research and advisory company based in Stamford, CT. “The fact that they don’t have a mainstream desktop e-mail user group and they are not a well-known name are strikes against them.” And, suggests Dulaney, don’t expect mobile operators to help the free download service.

Another global mobile push e-mail service provider, Emoze, launched a free mobile service in January. Its service gives users the option of downloading its software to their PC, which will serve as a connector pushing e-mails and data to their mobile device. Alternatively, users can employ a central server, installing the Emoze mobile client, and provide their Outlook Web Access credentials, which are encrypted and stored locally on their mobile device. The company also plans to launch a corporate version for a fee in the near future.

While it remains uncertain which strategy will dominate the market, the opportunities are clear. “The wireless market is very active and probably the best place for mobile operators to make money on data because it is something everyone wants,” says Dulaney. “Wireless e-mail is a certainty, and eventually, just as every cell phone has voice, every cell phone will have e-mail.”

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