Microsoft today said it has launched a version of its Hotmail web-based email service that can be accessed from mobile phones using an email-to-SMS system.

The service went live in Germany and France today. According to an MSN statement, it plans to launch the service in the UK and Spain "in the near future".

Users will specify email addresses from which they agree to receive SMS (short message service) email. They will then be able to read and reply to any messages from those addresses, said a spokesman for Microsoft. This will protect against spam and unwanted SMS messaging, he said.

Hotmail access on mobile phones can be a mixed blessing. While bypassing Hotmail's JavaScript platform is good, whether you want this 'unified messaging' in your life is debatable.

Microsoft has come very late to the party; unified messaging has been around for some years and, with its enormous user base, one would have thought Microsoft would have jumped on this bandwagon sooner.

Hotmail was created in 1995 and bought by Microsoft, after a year of speculation and negotiation, in December 1997.

After that MSN loaded Hotmail with JavaScript and has since gained more than 20 million users in Europe alone. But because of the JavaScript it's never been possible to look directly at the site using handheld devices such as a Palm PC.

MSN also announced today that it has revamped its portal service to work with the latest version of its PDA (personal digital assistant) operating system Pocket PC 2002, but considering it's been possible to access MSN and Hotmail using the Internet Explorer browser built in to existing versions of Pocket PC, this is almost certainly spin to keep MSN in the news. After all, it's still nearly impossible to get your Hotmail on a Palm.