Amstrad to try again with next-gen e-m@iler

Sugar is still a long way from his target of shipping one million of the original e-m@ilers by next summer - will the enhanced version do better?

Consumer electronics firm Amstrad is planning to launch a new version of its e-m@iler device.

The product, an enhanced version of the device that hit the shops last year, will go on sale before June 2002. Amstrad announced the impending launch of the new product in its financial results for the year to 30 June 2001. Few details are available at this stage about the new e-m@iler, and Amstrad spokespeople were not immediately available for comment.

The original e-m@iler has a qwerty keyboard and small high-resolution screen, and allows users to send and receive emails, text messages, faxes and digital pictures. E-m@iler users are charged 12p every time they use the device to send or retrieve email. It was launched across the UK in September 2000 by Amserve -- a partnership between Amstrad and high street retailer Dixons.

According to a company statement the product will be "cosmetically enhanced, and will include many new features."

One obvious improvement would be to add Web surfing. The original e-m@iler has a built-in micro-browser, which is limited to stop people accessing email via portals such as Hotmail, but changes in the revenue model may make this less important. Amstrad is also known to have had a colour version in development, although this is heavily dependent on the cost of displays.

Amstrad recently entered an agreement with Thus, who will supply the technology and services platform for the new e-m@iler. Thus, which owns Internet service provider Demon, operates a range of telecoms and Internet access services across Europe.

It appears that -- unless Amstrad has found a way of significantly lowering production costs -- the new e-m@iler will cost more than £79.99, which is the price of the current model. "[The new version] will have a significantly lower subsidy per unit," said company chairman Sir Alan Sugar.

According to Amstrad's figures, at the end of June 2001 there were around 92,000 registered e-m@iler units. At the press conference debut of the first e-m@iler, Sugar said he was aiming for one million users within two years of launch -- which means the company has to recruit another 900,000 subscribers within the next 12 months.

Sceptics have suggested that the e-m@iler product came to the market too late, now that so many households own a PC. But with recent figures showing the first-ever drop in PC sales across Western Europe, and with some economists predicting a UK recession, less tech-savvy households may decide that the new Amstrad product satisfies their needs.

The slowdown in the technology sector seems to have affected the financial performance of Amstrad, whose product range includes TVs and CD and DVD players. It also makes set-top boxes for BSkyB. In the 21 months to 30 June 2001, Amstrad made a pre-tax profit of £1m, compared to £13.1m the year before. This sharp decline was partly due to the Amserve business, which made a loss of £5.2m on sales of £4.1m. Total sales for the whole Amstrad group were £65m, down from £128m in 2000.

See the Consumer News Section for full coverage.

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