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Most wireless e-mail services have become available only in the past year, mostly via two-way pagers, and they're increasingly being delivered by wireless-phone carriers.
Because the new e-mail services make use of an e-mail address already provided by a person's employer or ISP, they eliminate the potential confusion that comes from managing two e-mail boxes: one for a person's office or home-office PC, the other for the person's wireless phone or pager. (Both types of devices usually come with their own Internet address.) Through a single e-mail address, someone can reach a wireless subscriber without having to know their location in advance.
As an alternative to these and other wireless e-mail services, consumers can direct their ISP or desktop e-mail program to automatically forward messages to the IP address of their two-way pager.
Responding to incoming messages, however, isn't so easy. Instead of hitting a reply button to respond, users have to originate a completely new message. Then, when the response is delivered, the recipient's in box will display the Internet address of the sender's pager or phone, potentially confusing the recipient.
Major wireless-phone carriers, including AT&T Wireless and Sprint PCS, offer access to multiple e-mail accounts from select wireless phones.
AT&T's PocketNet Plus service, for example, pushes e-mail from AOL and from any POP3 or IMAP4 account (such as Yahoo and Excite Mobile) to either of two CDPD modem-equipped phones: the $99 Ericsson R280LX and Mitsubishi's MobileAccess T250.
For $6.99 per month, users get unlimited e-mail and the ability to print up to 150 pages of attachments by forwarding the attachments to any fax machine. AOL and Yahoo instant messaging (IM) service isn't available.
Sprint subscribers access AOL, Yahoo and MSN e-mail through more than a dozen phones starting at $99 as part of Sprint's optional Wireless Web service. These phones are equipped with a microbrowser that can access websites marked up for display on small-screen devices. The three portals, in turn, operate servers that reformat e-mail into a microbrowser language accessible by the phones. AOL also delivers its full IM service to Sprint PCS users.
To make it easy to access the portals, Sprint places the portals' names on its phones' menu, but users of microbrowser-equipped phones activated on other carrier networks, including Verizon, can also access the portals by keying in the portals' addresses (aol.com, msn.com and yahoo.com) and bookmarking them.
In a growing number of cases, access to POP3 and IMPA4 e-mail accounts is built into wireless phones themselves, although in those cases, users have to pull the e-mail from their mailbox rather than have it sent automatically to them.
Wireless-phone makers Kyocera, Motorola and NeoPoint have already introduced phones with POP3 and IMAP4 e-mail support in new phones. These models, available to phone carriers in the coming months, will grab e-mail from a POP3 or IMAP4 server as long as the user's phone network supports digital data transfer (and all the big networks do).
POP3 stands for Post Office Protocol version 3, a standard by which mail is stored on an e-mail server operated by the IT department of a user's company or by an Internet service provider (ISP) or Internet portals for downloading to the user's PC or wireless device. A less frequently used e-mail protocol is IMAP4, which stands for Internet Message Access Protocol version 4.
Most ISPs and portals supply POP3 mailboxes. They include Excite@Home, MSN and Prodigy. One big exception is America Online, which uses a proprietary protocol.
Many corporations operate POP3 and IMAP4 e-mail servers that make an employee's e-mail accessible from a Web browser. Companies that operate Microsoft Exchange e-mail servers can make them POP3 or IMAP4 compatible.