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Alltel Rolls Lucky Seven

This week's announcement that Alltel Corp. (NYSE: AT) will offer Office Sync mobile email service, based on software provided by Seven Networks Inc. , brings to three the number of wireless carriers in the U.S. that offer Seven's solution as a white-label service. It also means that all the major U.S. carriers save T-Mobile US Inc. now offer some form of alternative to the dominant BlackBerry mobile email service from RIM.

Office Sync, says Alltel's staff manager for Office Sync, Eric Martin, is initially available on the Palm Inc. Treo 650 and the UTStarcom Inc. (Nasdaq: UTSI) PPC-6700, which runs the Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system. Both handsets are equipped with backlit QWERTY keyboards and Bluetooth networking capability.

The move demonstrates a recognition by Alltel, which says it has moved up in league from a fast-growing regional to a "mid-major" wireless carrier and claims it has America's largest wireless network in terms of square miles covered. It believes the market for enterprise mobile email is rapidly evolving beyond a BlackBerry-centric world. (See Poised for Takeoff?.)

"BlackBerry has a lot of customers out there -- that's why we elected go into the BlackBerry business," says Martin. "But not every corporation is a BlackBerry shop, and the other ones still need access to their email and PIM [personal information management], so we can make sure we're servicing those enterprises as well."

Numbers in the mobile email market are notoriously squishy, but Seven now says it has sold more than 1 million licenses for its mobile email solution. The conversion rate to active users, says Seven vice president for carrier marketing Jason Guesman, is "very high." At any rate, here's a rundown of the big wireless carriers and their mobile email providers, either in a white-label or branded flavor;

*To former Nextel customers. **T-Mobile USA also offers mobile email capability over two phones that run Windows Mobile 5.0.

For enterprise customers, of course, increasing choice is a good thing. The expanding-universe model of mobile email, and more specialized enterprise wireless applications, means that BlackBerry's dominance is likely waning, says Roger Lewis, vice president of sales and marketing at Alliance Tech, an Austin, Tex.-based conference and event manager that puts on big events for tech heavyweights and that runs Seven's mobile email on Treo devices.

"From our perspective, we travel a lot going to events, and we're exposed to a lot of enterprise customers from IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) to Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) to SAS, and what I see is that RIM's market share is falling," comments Lewis. "I would say that more and more you'll see the enterprise [mobile email] business turning to smartphone-based mobile solutions, whether it's a Treo or a RIM device or [an upcoming] Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) Q."

At the same time, Seven's Guesman observes that the proliferation of feature-rich, platform-neutral mobile phones is driving the penetration of mobile email beyond the executive suite.

"The executive class may carry Treo 650s, but the other 20,000 users in a large enterprise will more likely use an entry-level phone," Guesman says. Usage surveys, he adds, indicate that 90 percent of the use of mobile email over handheld devices involves "read and delete" rather than composing responses. "If you need to triage your inbox, and access your corporate directly, with the phones hitting the market now, we can put a great experience on a $99 phone."

That might be a slight exaggeration, says Alliance Tech's Lewis, but the principle is sound.

"I see a movement toward that goal, but we're not quite there yet," he says, "to the $99 all-in-one device. But clearly in large enterprises there's a big push to have their mobile communications out to their salesforce and to large numbers of their employees."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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