Free mobile e-mail services hit Canadian users

Two companies are leading the charge to bring user-friendly e-mail to basic cell phones, one with a Web-based approach, and one going with a downloadable program.

Thousands have already used Santa Monica, California-based Teleflip’s service in the States, one-third of which, estimates CEO Tony Davis, are business users. Even 300 Canadians have signed up, prior to the product’s official launch in Canada in a couple of weeks.

He said that, while 22 million Canadians use e-mail, and 22 million Canadians have cell phones, only 1.5 million have e-mail-enabled device, such as a BlackBerry or other Windows Mobile-based smartphone. The cost of data plans in Canada are often prohibitive to those in the enterprise seeking a mobile e-mail solution.

Teleflip’s solution to these issues is its patent-pending text-message-delivered e-mail software. Its program, according to Davis, grabs e-mails out of a user’s account, then delivers them to the company’s server. There, they are converted to a reader-friendly format, and, using mapping and routing technology (courtesy of a database of all North American cell phone numbers), then delivered to the user’s cell phone.

The program is easily activated by providing a cell phone number, e-mail address, and e-mail password, and works on any text-message-enabled cell phone, and e-mail account powered by POP, IMAP, or Web-based browser. This, he said, has an advantage over competing e-mail-to-phone products. Yahoo! and Google, for instance, require software to run and a decent data plan, while Outlook settings can push e-mails to a mobile device, but will often ruin the formatting (and don’t allow the user to reply).

San Francisco-based Flurry, meanwhile, which already has Canadian users, requires a Java-capable phone that can access the Internet. After signing up with Flurry, users get a text message with a link; clicking it spurs the service’s Java client to download and install in a matter of minutes. After launching the application, it will start downloading message headers. All retrieved mail is processed through Flurry’s servers, which compress images and strip down headers to keep data airtime costs down.

Users can add multiple e-mail accounts and RSS feeds, as well as import CSV-formatted contact lists (which users can create in most major e-mail services or clients), via one’s account page on Flurry’s Web site. There, you can also set filters so that, for example, Flurry delivers messages only from certain people, or blocks messages with particular words in the subject line. Flurry doesn’t refresh an inbox until instructed to do so, but users can opt to get text messages alerting one to any new mail, or messages from specific senders.

Flurry, however, doesn’t work on networks like Alltel or Verizon that prohibit third parties from installing software on their devices without carrier support.

Davis said that every major Canadian carrier (including the regional ones) are compatible, and that 300 Canadians have already signed up, even prior to the national launch. He attributes its success to the fact that users want push-email devices, without the set-up hassles and cost of a smartphone. “And this emulates a push-mail device, with mail coming in every ten minutes,” said Davis.

Readability is aided by user-friendly formatting, but a disadvantage is the fact that e-mails can only be sent in chunks of 160 characters. Spam is effectively filtered out, as the customer puts together a whitelist of contacts from whom they want to receive texted e-mails (common e-mail client address books can also be uploaded). This approach could, however, block important, yet unexpected, messages.

Davis said that Teleflip is unique in that it allows the user to respond to e-mails, too, by using the texting function. The resulting product is not a text message, but an e-mail that ends up in the recipient’s inbox. Said Davis: “This turns a basic cell phone into a smartphone.”

This is one of the key aspects that Davis expects enterprise users to especially enjoy, as it will allow recipients to respond via e-mail, rather than by text (a medium many older folks aren’t very familiar with), while allowing the sender to continue conducting business away from the computer. This should come in handy with many verticals, said Davis, who pointed out the usefulness for the growing mobile workforce, along with field workers, salespeople, and those on the road a lot. To keep e-mails coming at optimal times, there is a scheduling tool that allows the user to program when e-mails are pushed out to the phone.

When asked whether some enterprises might be wary of implementing a free solution on its workers’ mobile devices, Davis said, “The SMS channel is one of the most reliable parts of the mobile infrastructure.”

But the IT professional could also be left out of the loop, he said, pointing out that the application can be easily set up within minutes and doesn’t need any upkeep from in-house IT staff (Teleflip has its own 24-hour support team). This could potentially leave the field open for further confusion about (or between) mobile policies and practices, and corporate privacy standing.

Davis said, however, that Teleflip does not retain any personal information, and even the e-mail passwords are heavily encrypted in accordance with their strict privacy policies.

The system could also be used as a mass alert system. Davis said that several universities are working with Teleflip to bring the service to their students to use as an immediate mass alert system for when unforeseen tragedies or emergencies pop up, such as the Virginia Tech massacre earlier this year. Several of them are considering making Teleflip registration mandatory when registering for school, he said.

Users can only access one e-mail account presently, but Davis expects that early in the new year, they will be able to add additional e-mails to their Teleflip account. Revenue streams will also kick in then, courtesy of advertising in message footers (a model Flurry will also utilize soon) . Davis said that the service will always be free, but next year will also see the introduction of a premium subscription service that will offer value-added features (like speedier e-mail downloads) for a few dollars a month. Flurry plans on adding a feature that allows the user to synch their Flurry inbox with their e-mail server (so that erasing a Flurry message makes it disappear on your desktop).

–With files from Yardena Arar, PC World (US).

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