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May 10, 1998

Rush to boost ad revenue means
free E-mail for Internet users

By Timothy C. Barmann

Here's another example of the crazy economics of the Internet: there are now dozens of companies practically tripping over each other to give something away.

The latest rage seems to be offering free E-mail service through the World Wide Web. And the invitations seem to be everywhere. Popular Web sites such as Yahoo!, Switchboard, Lycos, Excite and Deja News now advertise Web-based E-mail at no charge. Netscape says it will soon join in, too.

What's in it for these companies? They all believe that the Internet will pay off the same way free television broadcasts do for broadcasters. Their hope is that money will flow in from advertisers who are anxious to display their ads in front of computer-literate people, who are generally thought to be educated folks who buy things.

The competition to provide free E-mail is really a race to see who can get the most people to visit their site. The more visitors a Web site has, the more the site's owner can charge its advertisers. And unlike television, Web sites that offer free E-mail can target the ads toward the profile of the visitors.

Offering free E-mail has proved to be a great way to draw eyeballs. One of the first companies to offer free Web-based E-mail was Hotmail, based in Sunnyvale, Calif. Last month, that company said it had 13 million users and claims it is the world's largest provider of E-mail. Software giant Microsoft thought that giving away E-mail service was such a good idea that it bought Hotmail late last year for an undisclosed amount.

While it seems unclear whether this strategy will pay off for these E-mail providers, the proliferation of free Web-based E-mail is great for Internet users.

The way these services work is that you are asked to fill out a survey or questionnaire to help the company figure out which ads they want you to see. Once you select a username and a password, you can send and receive E-mail in a similar way that traditional PC-based E-mail programs work.

Since these E-mail services are Web-based, the key advantage is that you can access your E-mail practically anywhere there is an Internet connection. You don't need any additional software beyond a Web browser.

That means that you can drop by a Web cafe, or even your local public library and retrieve and send messages.

Web-based E-mail is a reasonable alternative for someone who travels but doesn't want to lug around a laptop computer. It's also the perfect solution for anyone who doesn't own a computer, but has access to one at work or school, for example.

It's even useful for those who already have E-mail through their Internet provider. Most of the Web-based services let you check E-mail you have received the traditional way from your Internet service provider.

A nice benefit about using Web E-mail at work is that it affords you some extra privacy. Employers generally can access the E-mail messages received by their employees through a company-administered E-mail system. But if you are using the Web to send and receive E-mail, your messages are stored on the servers run by that E-mail provider, not your employer. That makes it difficult for prying eyes to snoop.

The downside of the free E-mail services is that they've become a haven for those snake-oil salesmen who take pleasure in sending out unsolicited junk E-mail.

Most E-mail providers forbid spamming, as it's called, but once they shut down one free account, there's little they can do to prevent a spammer from signing up for another. And another. And another. You get the picture.

To help curb junk E-mail, many of the services let you filter out messages from a certain address. That won't solve the problem but it may help.

Filtering has other uses. Say you subscribe to a mailing list that sends out messages from the same E-mail address. You can direct the E-mail service to examine your incoming E-mail and put those particular messages into a particular mailbox.

Many E-mail services offer other interesting add-ons. Hotmail, for example, lets you check the spelling of your messages before sending them. It also has an on-line version of the Merriam Webster dictionary and thesaurus, though these features are slow. Many also let you fill out a personalized address book, making it easier to address mail to friends and relatives.

A word of caution about using Web-based E-mail. Some of the services use "cookies" to keep track of who you are to make it practically effortless to log in from the same computer. While there's nothing wrong with doing this, it means you must be diligent about logging off from the E-mail service when you are finished, especially if you are using a publicly accessible computer terminal, such as one in a library. If you don't, you leave the door wide open to your E-mail account to the next person that sits down at that terminal.

Where to get free Web-based E-mail:

If you don't have access to the Internet, you're not out of luck. Those with the most basic computer systems, even those 10-year-old antiques, can connect to the Ocean State Free-Net. The Free-Net is run by a group of volunteers whose mission is to bring the on-line world to everyone -- not just those who can afford it. All you need is a modem and some basic software that usually comes with modems.

Those who join get text-only access to the World Wide Web, among other things, and of course, a free E-mail account.

For more information, leave a message for the Free-Net at 272-5388.

For those who run Microsoft Windows, you can also get free E-mail from Juno (http://www.juno.com). That company also provides advertiser supported E-mail using its own standalone software. You can download the software for free on its Web site, or you can order it for $8.82 by calling 800-654-5866.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.