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Home > Business > Special

Special: The war for mobile mail

Surajeet Das Gupta in New Delhi | December 10, 2005

For the last year, the Blackberry has remained on the cutting edge of technology and knowledge. As the hottest mobile push e-mail service around the globe, it's split the world into two - those who have it, and those who don't.

The corporate toy that's guaranteed to stir heated debates in every boardroom, it's what jet-setting executives have used to stay in touch with their offices as they download their corporate e-mails every time they pop up on mobile screens, demanding immediate attention.

It's what young entrepreneurs have sworn by, eliminating the need to rush to cyber cafes when out of town to check their Internet accounts.

It's expensive, of course, but you never expected it be cheap, right? After all, you access the server you require in your office if you subscribe to the corporate e-mail service (cost: Rs 1-2 lakh), get the Blackberry-enabled phone you need to acquire it (Rs 20,000 plus), as well as pay the monthly service tariff (Rs 500-1,000) - all of which has led to a hierarchy of ownership that separated the haves from the have-nots.

But like every other technology in the world, the Blackberry's exclusive reign is being challenged. And before you know it, more Indians could subscribe to the push e-mail service than had ever thought it possible.

That's because Airtel's domination in the push e-mail space (which had exclusive rights for Blackberry in India) is being challenged by Hutchison Essar. And with the clash of the titans, it's clear that the winner, by far, is going to be the consumer.

Already, Hutchison Essar has launched its push corporate e-mail service through Hutch Mail, and is now waging a price war against Airtel.

It has dramatically dropped entry tariffs to nearly half those of Airtel's Blackberry, is doling out servers free to corporates, and is offering the service on an array of phones (nearly 30 models from different handset manufacturers) so you don't need to spend extra as is the case with Blackberry (which is limited to just a handful of models).

And it's making up for lost time. Hutch has already roped in 70 corporates (some, it claims, away from its rivals; a fact that Airtel is denying) and over 3,000 users to its fold.

Trial runs are on in over 200 companies across the country to experience its service. Explaining the company's strategy, Asim Ghosh, managing director of Hutchison Essar, points out: "The mobile phone has to be the way that e-mail services will reach the masses. You could call this the democratisation of the e-mail."

That is already happening. Over the next few days, Hutch will unravel a push e-mail service that will cater to individual users who want their Internet accounts (such as Yahoo! or Gmail) to pop up on their phones sans any server.

And the service is expected to be priced attractively - around Rs 299 according to some sources, with some free download capacity (compared to Airtel's Rs 499-1,099 a month). Finally, of course, Hutch is believed to be in talks with Blackberry itself. Blackberry's exclusive tie-up with Airtel expires in February 2006.

The broadening of the market is not limited to just these moves. Hutch is working on an ambitious move to make Hutch Mail services available on phones with a Java client (currently Hutch Mail is enabled on Symbian and Microsoft operating systems).

Should that happen by the summer of 2006, insiders say it will add another 30-40 additional phones to make the service "truly phone agnostic"(virtually all GPRS-enabled phones will work on it). Any wonder the company is confident of roping in a half million customers into its fold by end-2006.

But Airtel/Blackberry isn't taking things lying down, and is preparing its arsenal to fight back. Aware of the limited range of phones available for the Blackberry service, Airtel is expanding the range, working on value-addition services rather than just vanilla e-mail to woo corporates and, of course, keeping a close watch on the competition.

Says Sunil Tandon, senior vice president (corporate and SME mobility), Bharti Televentures, which runs the Blackberry services: "We are the market leader in the push mail service and will do everything to see that we stay so."

So why are the country's big telephone companies (which also include CDMA players) pushing e-mail services?

After all, Blackberry hasn't really crackled in the 13 months that it's been available in India, and industry experts say it has probably not picked up more than 10,000 subscribers in the last year. Airtel contests this premise, claiming it's done much better than it had expected, but is shy of sharing numbers.

What is undeniable is that all telcos are looking at value-added revenues from data. Gartner, a research agency, estimates that about 20.5 per cent of telco revenues will come from data by 2008.

Already, the industry estimates are 10 per cent with the phenomenal success of SMS, ringtones and music. E-mail, with its popularity on the desktop, could become the additional revenue earner. Airtel, for instance, has increased average revenue per user of Blackberry-owning customers by two to three times on account of e-mail services.

And with 5 per cent of the total GSM mobile subscriber base already on GPRS, a shift is hardly unexpected, provided the service is affordable.

By Hutch's reckoning it is the affordability factor that is responsible for Blackberry's limited usage in India. Therefore, instead of compelling customers to buy expensive Blackberry handsets priced above Rs 20,000, Hutch is promising the same service on phones from Nokia, Sony-Ericcson and others starting at a low Rs 9,000.

Its study shows that 40 per cent of management staff in any corporate already own such phones, and so will not be required to change to subscribe to the push mail service. But should you need to buy a phone, Hutch has built in a finance scheme directly administered by it for customers to pay in easy instalments.

For market penetration, Hutch has devised an aggressive combination of marketing and pricing to get customers. The biggest incentive for corporates, for instance, is its offer to install servers free of cost. Then, it is wooing them by offering the entire service free of charge during a trial period that ranges from 30 to 60 days.

And adding teeth to the offer is its pricing strategy, which makes the service affordable across the board. Its entry price for e-corporate mail at Rs 199 is much cheaper than Airtel's entry price of Rs 499. In both cases, customers pay for downloads (Airtel charges 50 paisa per kilobyte, Hutch is claiming it will offer 10 kilobytes for the same price).

Hutch is additionally offering a Rs 499 pack for 100 MB download (which it says is enough for most subscribers). But Blackberry users have no such option and have to pick up a pack of Rs 899 for limitless download (Hutch's offer for a similar package is also at the same price).

Hutch executives say they have a pricing edge simply because Airtel has to pay anything from $9-10 as royalty to Blackberry every month for each customer, forcing it to keep prices high.

Hutch, of course, says it offers more security firewalls, needs only one small PC and limited memory space to put on a server in the company, and does not have any limitation in the number of customers that it will need from a company before it offers the service (in Airtel's case, the server price offered depends on the number of users).

Not wanting to lose its first-mover advantage, Airtel, meanwhile, launched Blackberry Connect in September to enable the service in over 15-16 phone models from various makers (though this could take a few months) to dent the Hutch advantage.

Tandon insists Blackberry hasn't lost any clients in India on account of Hutch's free server offer, simply because it has more security features than Hutch - a key concern for corporates.

Says Tandon: "Paying for a server which is a one-time cost is the least of their concerns. They feel we have very high levels of security." Also, it is no big deal as several MNCs that have free space in a Blackberry server in some other country, can utilise that for their Indian office and need not buy a server at all.

Airtel also rubbishes the Hutch contention that it cannot reduce tariffs because of the high royalties it pays Blackberry. Retorts Tandon: "Even they have had to buy the technology and pay for it. If they want to absorb that cost, it is different."

For the consumer, ultimately, the battle is going to be over tariffs. Will Airtel drop its price barrier? Tandon isn't commenting yet, except to hint broadly that it will do everything to maintain its leadership position.

He is also questioning Hutch's service on various parameters - the memory of e-mails is dependent on the memory of the phone a customer uses, for instance: therefore, will he have access to all his mails when he is out of town, on account of that restriction?

Airtel is also considering enterprising solutions so that the usage in corporates goes beyond just ordinary e-mail. Tandon points out that the company is in talks with third party software companies that offer solutions like office automation systems, or an easy dictionary of all legal decisions for lawyers, that can be accessed on the Blackberry service. That, he says, will be the new growth area for revenues.

The action has already begun, but it is in February, when the Airtel/Blackberry partnership ends and is up for grabs, that things will really hot up. But whichever way the penny falls, for once the customer can expect to be laughing all the way to the bank.

How it works:

Typically, if you need to look at your e-mail on the phone, you can do one of two things - get onto the internet site and retrieve it, or go to Microsoft's Outlook (or any other software offered by the phone maker), sync the accounts and, again, retrieve it. Each time you do this, it could take anywhere between half a minute to as long two to three minutes.

But push mail offers amazing flexibility. Your mail pops up on the screen pretty much like an SMS message, whether it is from your office or from a e-mail internet site (like Yahoo!) that you have configured.

And you can access e-mail anywhere around the globe, reply, even open attachments just like you do on your PC. You can also remotely update your address book as well as your daily diary. To get your corporate mail, of course, you need your office to set up a server.

Blackberry, which pioneered push mail, has 77 per cent of the global market for such mail. But at the moment it is fighting a messy legal suit with US-based NTP Inc, which has claimed that the technology behind Blackberry infringes on its patents.

A settlement offer for $450 million by Research in Motion (RIM), the company that runs Blackberry services, has been declared invalid. Airtel executives say the case is subjudice, but that whatever the outcome, it won't have any impact on its services in India.

Where does CDMA stand?

CDMA companies are addressing the affordability issue by offering regular e-mail services at rock bottom tariffs. Says Mahesh Prasad, president (applications and solutions group), Reliance Infocomm: "I don't think customers will pay over Rs 100-150 to get e-mail services just yet, unless it is paid by the company."

Last month, Tata Teleservices launched a corporate e-mail service for Rs 30 per month with no limitation on downloads. Says Pankaj Sethi, vice president, Tata Teleservices: "Our aim is to provide the service on phones priced as low as Rs 6,000-7,000 and used by the common man."

Tata Teleservices is testing a push e-mail alternative too, but hasn't decided on its launch yet. Reliance Infocomm has gone a step further, structuring tariff based on usage.

Every time you check your e-mail account, you pay Rs 3 for an unlimited session. That's even more attractive than SMS. Says Mahesh Prasad, "Every month, 1,25,000 to 1,50,000 users have been using e-mail services from Reliance IndiaMobile handsets."

Nor is the company ignoring the corporate e-mail space, having made it available on 9 million phones that have R World. It is offering corporate e-mail services for Rs 99 a month with unlimited downloads.

Customers have three alternatives - they can read the header and the sender of the mail; they can scan through the first para; and, of course, read the entire mail - all at no extra cost. Could this be the way to expand the mobile e-mail market?

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