Nokia, Microsoft and others, are almost giving away software to muscle into the wireless e-mail business now dominated by Research In Motion, the maker of the popular BlackBerry. Last week's announcement from Vodafone in the UK, shows the level of competition in mobile business email

Around 1 percent of the world's 650 million corporate e-mail accounts are plugged into hardware and software that forwards incoming messages to a mobile device. More than half of those, about 3.65 million, use RIM's BlackBerry devices.

"Most of those 650 million will be mobilised within three years," said Scott Cooper, vice president for mobility solutions at Nokia's enterprise solutions group.

The reason for his optimism is that Nokia, like Microsoft, will practically give away wireless access to business e-mail.

Their new products may leave investors wondering how RIM will compete, rekindling memories of companies such as Netscape, which had to give away its Internet browser when Microsoft decided to do so.

Nokia is offering companies a new €1,800 Nokia Business Center server. After it is installed, then the basic service of receiving and sending mail from behind the security firewall is free, even when given to hundreds of staff.

"We're making such a big leap with a different architecture that it enables different economics," Cooper added.

Analyst Andrew Neff at Bear Stearns says Nokia and Microsoft have interesting products but no market share. "For now, BlackBerry is the only game in town, and [RIM is] pricing it that way."

Vodafone in Britain has just Overhauled its mobile email, offering its own push email, and a Microsoft-based alterative, alongside Blackberry. Vodafone sells the Blackberry Enterprise server for £3,450. Vodafone then charges £28 ($49) monthly for unlimited domestic e-mail downloads, plus an additional roaming fee of £41 and £8.75 per Mbyte outside the country.

Many corporate users already pay a fixed monthly fee for a large bucket of mobile data. Mobile e-mail from Nokia or Microsoft servers would fit into that package.

BlackBerry devices start at £189, while the cheapest rival products are priced below €300.

Nokia and Microsoft - two different motives
Nokia is willing to take a long-term view of the market, because the payoff does not have to be in sales of server software but in potential sales of thousands of Nokia phones to employees at a company in order to read their wireless e-mails.

"When all is said and done, Nokia is primarily a mobile phone company. Any additional activities are largely incremental," said Ben Wood at market research firm Gartner Inc.

For Microsoft, it's about sales of additional products rather than the wireless server software.

Firms that already own Microsoft's Exchange Server 2003 for Outlook e-mail can upgrade freely starting in early 2006, allowing them to push messages to devices running on Windows Mobile 5.0 software, which include various operator-branded phones and Motorola Inc. phones.

"There is no additional cost, no middleware, no service fee. The only thing that might come up is a new device running Windows Mobile 5.0," said Hardy Poppinga, European product manager for Windows Mobile and Embedded devices.

An estimated 126 million employees use Microsoft Outlook.

RIM's key strength is that it figured out how to securely send an e-mail to a wireless device through a corporate firewall many years before anyone else managed to do that.

With its business growing fast, some 70 percent of RIM sales are currently generated by BlackBerry devices, although RIM claims its main activity is software and services.

The focus on devices is seen as a weakness by some analysts, because it means RIM has to compete with much bigger firms such as Nokia and Motorola, which do nothing but design attractive handsets for many different users to fit personal preferences.

RIM did not return phone calls seeking comment. The company said earlier this year, however, that it would offer cheaper devices and a simpler setup. This month, it has lowered its estimates of new customers.

And more rivals
The market opportunity of wireless e-mail has also attracted competition from companies that deliver software only and do not make devices, such as Good Technology (reviewed here), Visto, and Seven .

Vodafone Group will use Visto software to drive its own branded push e-mail service, just launched in the UK,. The service is already live in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Finland and Greece.

Nokia first announced a collaboration with RIM two years ago, agreeing to put RIM e-mail software in a selection of its phones, but since then RIM has increasingly become a rival.

Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila, in a recent conference call, made clear that Nokia had now developed a variety of e-mail options by itself and with different companies.

"We have a contract with them [RIM], and we will support them when we see fit," he said.

Analysts say the analogy between RIM and Netscape fails in that BlackBerry is the premier name in wireless e-mail products, while Netscape's browser was not materially different from Microsoft's.

But as mobile e-mail extends past the elite of investment bankers and senior executives, fewer people will demand the top-name product.

"What customers want is their e-mail, and if there are lower-cost alternatives, that is a competitive threat to RIM. I am loyal to RIM, but I am really loyal to my e-mail," Neff said.

Peter Judge, Techworld, updated this story.