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Wireless Providers Are Jumping In on Instant Text-Messaging Service

October 26, 2000|ELIZABETH DOUGLASS | Times staff writer Elizabeth Douglass covers telecommunications.

Almost daily, someone somewhere thinks up a new service or Internet feature for your wireless phone or hand-held device. But take heart because they are also steadily improving some of the essentials of modern mobile communications: electronic mail and instant messaging capabilities.

Last week, for example, two of the nation's largest mobile phone operators launched instant text-messaging services. That sort of messaging might not strike you as particularly useful on a mobile phone, especially because it's time-consuming to spell out words by tapping a small phone keypad. But think again.

Overseas, the airwaves are jammed with short, instant text messages flying between wireless phones. In August alone, about 9 billion short messages were sent and received worldwide, according to an industry estimate.

Now companies in this country want in on the action.

AT&T Wireless launched two-way quick messaging early last week. Through Feb. 28, 2001, AT&T is offering the new messaging service for free. Once the promotion is over, customers can send and receive a combined 250 messages for free (with extras billed at 10 cents each), or they can pay $4.99 per month for as many as 500 messages (10 cents each for extras).

A few days later, rival Sprint PCS launched three new non-voice mobile phone services: short mail, America Online's instant messaging and wireless chat.

With the addition of AOL's instant messaging feature, Sprint PCS customers can tap out quick bits of text using Internet-ready wireless phones sold by the carrier.

Using the mini-Web browser built into those phones, customers can send and receive text messages in real time with an established AOL instant-messaging sign-on or by getting one free at the AOL or Sprint PCS Web sites.

The messaging feature is being offered as part of Sprint PCS' "wireless Web" and does not cost extra. However, each minute spent messaging will count against your monthly allotment of combined minutes for voice and data calling. Customers who do not subscribe to the Web service can use instant messaging for a per-minute fee.

To reduce the need for typing via the phone, AOL created a special wireless "quick reply" feature that stores "smileys" and common phrases and retrieves them with a single button.

Both AT&T Wireless and Sprint--as well as several others--also offer wireless access to e-mail. Last week, there was more news on that front too. Motient Corp., a nationwide wireless data service provider that has focused primarily on corporate customers, announced plans to jump into the consumer market with a series of two-way messaging, Web-browsing and e-mail services in the coming months.

The company last week announced that it will make e-mail and other content from Internet powerhouse Yahoo available to customers through the popular BlackBerry wireless messaging hand-held device made by Research In Motion.

Motient's new offering will cost $34.95 for unlimited e-mail and unlimited Web browsing, or $14.95 for more limited usage. For now, just one version of the BlackBerry device supports the service, costing about $335 for the device and various accessories.

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