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Michael Serbinis, chief technical officer at Critical Path, explains that the company wants to be “the BlackBerry of the consumer world”.
Memova Mobile, the company’s consumer-focused mobile email service, enables users to receive e-mails on mobile phones through their existing e-mail accounts rather than using new addresses set up by mobile service providers. Users can register both web mail accounts such as Yahoo and Hotmail with the service, or custom accounts attached to their own Internet domain name, accessed via a POP3 email server.
The Memova Mobile software sits in the mobile service provider’s data centre, and once a mobile telephone user registers an existing email address on their account, it retrieves their mail and transmits it down to the phone. The company complements the Memova Mobile system with an anti-abuse software product designed to make email filtering more efficient.
What differentiates Critical Path’s e-mail service from RIM’s BlackBerry Internet Service, which does more or less the same thing for consumers?
First, it works with any handset compatible with the multimedia messaging service (that’s most of them), which widens the market. Second, users can create a list of senders that they are happy to receive mail from while on the move, says Mr Serbinis, enabling them to prioritise friends and family.
“The service also has a capability called suggestive priority which is essentially predictive filtering,” he says. “It looks at your behaviour as a user of that mail account and suggests messages, senders, discussion topics or keywords that you might want to receive mails about.”
Nevertheless, the market has been slow to get the message. Critical Path is still operating at a net loss (although it did register a small operating profit in its latest quarter).
Perhaps part of the problem is the San Francisco-based group’s failure to penetrate its domestic market – 80 per cent of its revenue comes from outside the US, which Mr Serbinis says is less mature than other markets in terms of data services. In the last nine months, the company has attempted to gain more traction in the US, however.
As it continues to court service provider customers at home, it must overcome difficulties that have dogged it on and off since an SEC accounting investigation in 2001 that led to several former executives being charged. The company is currently attempting to retain its Nasdaq listing following its failure to meet the minimum value requirement set out under the exchange’s rules.
Critical Path is primarily owned by a few large private equity shops, explains Serbinis, so the number of common shares available is quite low. “And the company’s history, which we’re far and away from today, has definitely been chequered.”
In a consumer market dominated by SMS text, it remains to be seen whether Critical Path will be able to promote handset-based email as a viable alternative for non-business users. As its financials continue to nose upwards, mobile industry follows will be watching it with interest.