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Malcolm Murphy – Why is mobile email still not right?

I became aware of Nokia’s latest email offering recently, and being both an email junkie and S60 phone user I quickly installed it and had a play with it. I was intending to write a full review for this article, but I found that I kept wanting to talk about Nokia email in the context of mobile email in general, so I decided instead to write about mobile email in general. Thoughts on the Nokia offering will come later…

I can’t remember how long I have had email on my phone and/or PDA. I’m pretty sure it was no later than 1997, and definitely by 1999 I had more than one working solution. Back then, operators had dial-up numbers to send SMS, so it was a simple (!) matter of connecting my mail server to a modem and sending the text of the messages in SMS. Admittedly, it was a bit Heath Robinson, but it did work. It certainly wasn’t a mass market solution though.

Then, around about 2000, the operators in the UK all launched their own email services. You got your very own email address, together with all the instructions you needed to configure the email client on your phone. Fantastic. Millions of pounds were spent on building those services, which, by and large, completely failed to enthuse the market. I think it’s fair to say that all of those services flopped. There were several reasons for that:
Getting a new email address is inconvenient – people already have email addresses and want to be able to use those. Forwarding mail from my email account to my mobile email is a bit of a hassle
And when I read the forwarded email on my handset, I still have to process the mail on my PC when I get back to it
If I send a mail from my mobile, it would have the address rather than my “real” address
Of course, all this assumes that I manage to configure GPRS (or WAP dial-up, remember that?) and the email client on my phone
Data wasn’t cheap back then
So, you had people like me running my own mail server smugly getting email on my phone, and the rest of the world getting along quite happily without it, thank you.

Fast forward to today, and no self-respecting email junkie is seen in public without their Blackberry. If you want your email on the go, the answer’s Blackberry. Now that the Blackberry is firmly entrenched in the corporate email space, it is trying to make the transition into the consumer space. Time will tell if it will be successful, but I have my doubts. These doubts come from the device – I just don’t believe enough people will be willing to swap their Nokia, Sony Ericsson or Samsung for a Blackberry. Those three are massive consumer brands, and even before you consider the camera and music functions that we all need on our phones these days, branding alone puts RIM on the back foot. They’re also on the back foot because unless you have a corporate email server with Blackberry, you don’t get the seamless experience: you have to read the email on the device and on your PC.

To be fair, this last point breaks a lot of so-called consumer email solutions, not just Blackberry. And it arises because the mobile operator is collecting the email from my ISP and offering a separate service. The best solution from that point of view is Gmail – you can read, process, delete an email on the mobile client and never have to see it on the PC. Which is what I want. There are other drawbacks to Gmail, but they have this point nailed.

For some reason, we instinctively look to our mobile providers for mobile email. But there’s another player; the email provider. Google offers me the best access to the email because they’re the email provider, and mobile is another channel to stand alongside web and PC client access. So why aren’t more ISPs offering mobility as an add on to their offering? There’s no simple answer to that, but I think a lot of things that have previously held ISPs back on mobile are changing – most notably the availability of free or cheap data bundles. The really interesting opportunity is for the guys who have both ISP and mobile businesses (for example Virgin, CPW, Orange in the UK) to tightly bundle the two and create a genuinely compelling mobile email story. (As an aside, if anyone from one of these companies is reading this and wants to discuss further with me, get in touch).

To come back to what prompted this article, there is also a third player here, the handset manufacturer. The mobile application sits on the handset, so there is an opportunity for the manufacturer to provide a higher value service. It’s a fine line, because there’s a big difference between shifting consumer electronics and running consumer services, as even Apple found out recently, and also because the operators may not take kindly to being reduced to a bit part in this scenario.

Nokia’s service is positioned as a beta, and that’s how I found it. It isn’t good enough right now for my day-to-day email requirements, but it is a promising sign of intent.

I’m really optimistic that somewhere between the mobile operator, the ISP, and the handset manufacturers, we’ll see some excellent mobile email offerings in the next 18 months or so.

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