Mobile Email



I've been thinking about mobile email a bit having recently read articles about mobile email's growth, Nokia Access Mobilizer and today Seven's new Katai Office service for KDDI in Japan running on top of Qualcomm's BREW platform (Seven also announced a deal with DoCoMo back in July as well). Though email's been done pretty well on the Blackberry proprietary service (which Nokia integrates into their new offering) and to some extent on the Danger Hiptop as well, for most mobile networks, there's still a lot of space for email solutions it seems.

Email in general is broken. Between Spam and Viruses it's becoming harder and harder to filter out real messages from the crud that fills your inbox every day. Most people deal with it because you have to, but when you start paying by the kilobyte for mobile services, suddenly all that Spam and Microsoft virus attachments ("use this patch immediately!") can really add up. Even just regular email will cost you a boatload of time and money if you're not careful: This summer I paid 75€ to download a 3MB Word attachment over GPRS to my Nokia 3650 while on vacation. I was *not* happy about that, both because of the 30 minutes it took to download (blocking all the rest of my POP mail until I cleared it) and the cost involved. At least it was something I wanted... If I had paid that much for a virus, I would've been even more livid. So you can see that a solution that sits in front of you and your "normal" email is pretty important from both a convenience and monetary view, let alone adding other concerns such as security and reliability on top of it that a corporation would need.

You know as well as I do that email is here to stay because regardless of how flawed it is - so many corporations rely on it as an integral part of their business. I find it interesting that all these new services for the corporate market talk about about "access to corporate data" which is great, but in reality they're targeting email first, and then maybe some intranet stuff or something second. Nokia's solution is browser based and I assume incorporates technology from Eizel, which they purchased in May. I got to see a demo of that technology at the Symbian Exposium and it was pretty cool - depending on the various clients you have, the user interface adjusted from a basic WAP 1.2 UI, through XHTML-MP to a Web browser and can do neat tricks like allowing dynamic translation/viewing of document attachments, etc. According to this article in eWeek, Nokia's going to charge $16,000 per installation plus $50 a seat for NAM. Since Nokia reportedly only paid $21 million for Eizel, you have to think that they'll get a pretty quick return on investment if the package is even just moderately successful.

Now of course, when we're talking about corporate email we're talking about Microsoft Exchange. Nokia claims to be completely compatible with Exchange, but now that Nokia and Microsoft are positioned as mortal enemies, you have to wonder how long that will remain true. Also, as pointed out in the eWeek article, Exchange 2003 includes the Mobile Information Server which may do much of what Nokia's NAM offers. Though if the built in functionality works anything like Outlook Web Access, I'm sure it is user hostile, slow and generally unusable so I'm sure Nokia has little to fear on that front except for Microsoft's marketing.

I wish I knew a bit more about how Seven's back end system worked, but I find it interesting that they are taking a "rich client" approach to the mobile email problem by basing their Katai Office solution on top of BREW. From browsing Seven's website it appears that they have a WAP based server-side solution as well, but this new service piques my interest more. Conceivably, using BREW would allow that extra level of richness on the client side which could bring phone-based email to the ease-of use that something like the Blackberry has. You could have instant updates of new mail (not hacks involving SMS alerts), and you could have local storage for reading offline as well as a richer navigating experience. It's a very interesting... I'd like to see a demo. I tried to browse the KDDI website, but the English language version is just brochureware, so I didn't get much info. Though, Gizmodo has some news today on some kick-ass new 3G phones from KDDI, it would've been nice to see a Flash demo or something of the new Katai Office instead. When I find one, I'll post about it.

This seems to me like a perfect area for Sun to jump in with their Java System, actually. They've purchased Pixo to provide a billing infrastructure for consumer-oriented J2ME based apps, but Sun's core strength is in the corporate market. It seems to me that a mobile email solution which taps into Sun's new Java System on the back-end to integrate with corporate data, and the richness of J2ME clients on the front end would really be something that would compliment and integrate their various Java offerings quite well. Right now many people are using ReqWireless J2ME-based Email client (which is proxy based), why doesn't Sun provide a corporate equivalent of that? Seems like an obvious area where there's demand and which plays on Sun's area of expertise.

Anyways, all this brings me to a service that I thought up a few months ago as part of iMobs and floated again on #mobitopia today. It seems to me that *many* people who are not part of a corporation (or who don't have $16,000 to drop on a turn-key solution for their back end) would simply like to be able to really use the POP mail clients that many new phones offer already. We all have email, but many of us don't have all that extraneous corporate data that these guys are also offering access to (like calendaring and shared contacts, etc.) so we just need a more cut-down simple service.

The idea - which incredibly, I don't have a name for! (that's a first) - would simply be a basic filtering service for normal POP mail, specifically for access by mobile devices, and geared towards higher-end smartphones like the Nokia 3650 which would have their own POP3 mail clients, decent storage and document viewers. A user would sign up for the service online and receive an email account where they could forward their normal email while they're out of the office or away from their normal computer. After they signed up, they then:

  • Make a list of approved email addresses. Only these email addresses that match get through to the mobile (buh-bye Spam).
  • Make a more specific set of filters - only those matching certain keywords also get through (forward from the office, but only your project emails get priority).
  • Strip all attachments, but make them available for download via WAP and maybe viewable online (that's harder - and probably patented).
  • List all the other non-filtered emails online via WAP which can manually be approved for downloading.

That's it. Nothing too fancy - but I think it would be insanely useful. How much woud you pay for a service like that? Enabling you to receive important, filtered messages while mobile, saving you time and money, while allowing you access to your emails offline via your local email client? It'd be worth a basic monthly fee I think. Though, from a technical perspective I'm a bit clueless... how hard is it to set up this sort of filtering do you think? And creating dynamic email addresses (like Hotmail) and access via WAP? I'm not a server admin-god, especially when it comes to things like email so even though I think the idea is solid, because it doesn't have much to do with a J2EE server, I'm not sure exactly where to start implementing it.

Well, anyways, this is sort of an ultra-targeted service like mobile photo albums, moblogs and backup services, which I think will soon go away in favor of more uber-services which encapsulate various services for your mobile phones. I can easily imagine that once the big portals start realizing that more people will be accessing their sites via mobiles than PCs, they'll start to offer these types of services themselves... I think all consumer mobile services are sort of like that, really, but at least there's a great window of opportunity that's *right now*. :-D

Anyways, that's my thoughts on mobile email. It's amazing to me that an area which seems so technically dull, really has a lot of life and innovation left to be invested into it. It'd be really nice if mobile email was *really* useful, wouldn't it?


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