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Visto articulates mobile e-mail ROI to Notes users

Wireless firm Visto has $93 million in private equity, eight patents to its name and some convincing technology, but can it lure in Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook users?

Together with Handspring, wireless access firm Visto has recently released Treo Mail, a personal wireless email service designed specifically for Handspring Treo communicators. Visto's software provides large businesses and individuals with mobile access to groupware applications like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange. Wireless access to email for mobile employees continues to be a key market driver, and promises to become a dominant wireless data application.

The message: Visto and Handspring have co-developed Treo Mail, a personal wireless email service designed specifically for Treo communicators. Treo Mail is a complete, turnkey and cost-effective companywide mobile access solution.

Technology: The Treo Mail service provides integration with Outlook/Exchange and POP3 email. The email is synchronized wirelessly, so any email that is read, sent or deleted on the Treo device will appear that way on the desktop.

For large-scale corporate users, Handspring and Visto offer a server-based version that doesn't require desktop machines to be running to forward mail. Email can be delivered at scheduled intervals or manually. Filters are available to exclude unwanted email addresses for device delivery, and users can access, read and compose email while offline. Email attachments can also be forwarded.

Security is handled by 128-bit Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption. Visto claims that email is secure between the Treo device and the Treo Mail Service Operations Center, where it is cached in encrypted form and then delivered to a customer's PC. The company says the software does not require a VPN or direct dial into a corporate LAN.

The biggest weakness in the Treo Mail scheme, admits Visto CTO and VP of product management Daniel Mendez, is the carrier network. Treo Mail is offered in the US by VoiceStream Wireless and Cingular Wireless – with Sprint PCS expected soon.

The integration of both voice and data into a single device has been awkward so far, resulting in poor market reception. While new always-on 2.5G networks will go some way toward helping Treo Mail compete with more dedicated devices, such as RIM's BlackBerry device, Handspring Treo devices are not as sophisticated or advanced as the BlackBerry.

Treo Mail is available from Handspring for about $100 for the Corporate Desktop Edition and $50 for the Internet Edition on an annual basis.

Strategy: Visto has raised over $93 million in private equity since 1996. Its most recent investment was a $31 million round led by WaldenVC and Rustic Canyon Ventures in November 2001. Visto expects its market to develop slowly, but as the convergence of data and voice communications begins, email will not remain a stand-alone product for long.

Visto has been granted eight patents for synchronization, access and security technologies. At least one of the patents is applicable to device manufacturers for security over and above existing options such as Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), SSL, Wireless Transport Layer Security (WTLS), Blowfish and IPSec.

Another patent is applicable to offline access and forwarding – Visto claims to offer this today, while competitors including Seven have yet to implement it with partners, it says. Offline access enables users to maintain consistency between corporate data and mobile data, customize and control how information is synchronized and forwarded, and forward messages with attachments from a computer.

Competition: Visto is battling against some heavy-duty competition, including ViAir, Seven, Microsoft, Qualcomm's Wireless Knowledge, Aether, 724 Solutions and RIM, to name only a few.

From a technology perspective, Treo Mail works much like Seven's System Seven hosting platform and RIM's BlackBerry mail, bringing wireless mail from any Microsoft Exchange or standard Internet account. But in comparison with competitor Seven's message of 'zero footprint,' minimal startup costs and minimal administrative work for the enterprise network manager all wrapped up in a secure environment, Visto struggles to articulate a convincing ROI or business productivity story. The company would also benefit from highlighting compelling customer reference sites.

Future developments: In time, Visto will need to expand from offering simple email access to offering access to other products, such as CRM applications. But it doesn't think the time is right just yet.

The company's headcount is down to about 50 people, from about 80 when we last spoke to the company in November, and it recently adjusted its spending in reaction to the slowdown in the wireless sector. Last year it switched from a direct consumer to a Fortune 1000 business model. Since then, Visto has signed several partnerships, including Kyocera, Motorola, Nokia and Arch Wireless. Mendez doesn't expect the market to fire up until 2003.

The move from voice-centric devices with some data capabilities to data-centric devices with voice integration is now clearly under way. The shift directly correlates with the emerging dominance of an IP-based global data network and the move to new business and billing models. Although the expected lull in the industry signals more pain to come, it also opens up new opportunities. Visto is at the one of the key inflection points – but only a handful can expect to survive.

The451 assessment: Treo Mail works much like Seven's System Seven hosting platform and RIM's BlackBerry mail, bringing wireless mail from any Microsoft Exchange or standard Internet account. But unlike its rivals, Visto has struggled to articulate a convincing return-on-investment and business productivity message. Eventually, it will need to expand its offerings to include access to other products, such as CRM applications.

the451 is an analyst firm that provides timely, detailed and independent analysis of news in technology, communications and media. To evaluate the service, click here.

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