Starting next week, Citicorp account holders throughout the New York area will be able to send and receive electronic mail without a computer.
They'll be testing a screen phone by Philips Electronics, which wants to market its devices nationally as E-mail terminals.
Citicorp, which has conducted screen phone tests in several U.S. regions, is optimistic that an E-mail capability can help sell screen phones to a consumer population that has yet to flock to the devices.
"We would be happy if this generates new customers and if it makes banking easier," said Citibank spokesman Edward F. Dixon.
Using software from Oracle Corp., the phones are the first in the United States to provide E-mail accessibility, according to executives at Netherlands-based Philips.
"This is making E-mail a universal service," said Oracle spokeswoman Dawn Echols.
"It has tremendous appeal for the 70% of the consumer market which is not currently using personal computers," added Sohaib Abbasi, senior vice president at the Redwood Shores, Calif.-based company.
Mr. Abbasi's comments address a central issue for providers of screen phone services. Though the ranks of PC home banking users are still relatively thin, many observers predict the PC will be the delivery mechanism of choice for a majority of consumers.
Philips executives acknowledge the PC's growing popularity with consumers, but they contend that screen phones will have a place among the variety of delivery devices in the household of the future.
Philips' E-mail-equipped phones have been available since April to residents of Garden City, an affluent town on New York's Long Island.
Philips gave away 7,500 phones there as a way of testing consumer reaction their appetite for home banking and other interactive services.
"After we put to phones in Garden City, every bank in town wants to be involved," said Paul Chapple, spokesman for Philips Home Services, the Dutch company's Burlington, Mass., screen phone unit.
Although the screen phones normally retail for $399, Citibank customers can lease them from Philips for $6.50 a month.
As in the Garden City pilot, future users will pay Philips for the E- mail services after receiving them free for 60 days. In the Garden City test, it cost consumers 25 cents to send an E-mail message but nothing to receive one.
Philips is discussing alliances for widespread use of its screen phone in Orange County, California, said Mr. Chapple.
Although the phones would not be offered for free, Philips is exploring possible alliances with banks, advertisers, utilities, and phone companies to reduce the cost to consumers. Mr. Chapple declined to identify the companies with which Philips is speaking.