Wednesday January 29 3:13 PM EST

COLUMN: An Internet Old-Timer -- E-Mail -- Is Hot, Hot, Hot

By Michelle V. Rafter

LOS ANGELES (Reuter) - E-mail is big, and getting bigger.

The Internet staple is being sliced, diced, pushed, pulled and served up in any number of new entrees as e-mail software companies, publishers and others look to profit from the fundamental urge to communicate.

In recent months, amid the influx of consumers jumping online, companies offering lifetime e-mail addresses or free e-mail have popped up by the dozens. So have free or subscription-based services that broadcast news, weather, sports and other customized data to people's e-mailboxes.

Web-based mail, mailboxes incorporated in Web browsers, is booming. In a twist on the "push" technology popularized by PointCast, some players are offering e-mail services that deliver Web pages -- with all the multimedia bells and whistles -- to Web browser mailboxes instead of making people surf for the information they want.

"It's truly arrived. E-mail is the killer app so far in the online world," said Kate Delhagen, a Forrester Research analyst in Cambridge, Mass.

E-mail is predicted to become ever more ubiquitous over the next five years, according to a recent Forrester report. By 2001, the number of Americans with e-mail access should shoot to 135 million -- roughly half the population -- from 40 million today, as more families buy personal computers and companies offer more employees Internet access, according to the report.

Likewise, the volume of e-mail traffic will skyrocket, with Americans sending 500 million personal messages a day five years from now, and 5 billion a day by 2005, according to the report.

Delhagen envisions a day when e-mail will function as what she calls a "personal information store," collecting, filtering and archiving business correspondence, bills, catalogs, advertisements and letters from Mom, and forwarding it to telephone answering machines, public e-mail kiosks, even e-mail watches.

Some future-sounding applications are already here. People who sign up for a free lifetime e-mail address from Bigfoot (_http://www.bigfoot.com/_), the e-mail directory, can pay $14.95 a month to have e-mail forwarded to a pager or palmtop computer.

Next month, Microsoft and Octel Communications, the voice-mail company, are expected to announce a service called Unified Messenger that combines voice mail and e-mail.

The companies won't comment before the official unveiling Feb. 18, but recent news reports said the service will allow people to listen to their e-mail from a cell phone or phone in messages that would be delivered as e-mail. The combination hardware-software product is expected to ship in May and cost less than $200 per mailbox.

Over the past six months, dozens of companies have begun offering lifetime e-mail addresses, catering to people who constantly switch Internet service providers, and e-mail addresses. E-mail forwarders provide a cover address that automatically sends mail to any address the subscriber chooses. Some, such as Mailbank (_http://mailbank.com/_), offer "vanity" addresses with domain names such as "admirer.com," "equalrights.com" or "skydiver.com."

Some e-mail forwarders charge a couple of dollars a month for their services, but more are waiving fees in hopes of supporting their ventures through advertising.

That's what happened at USA.Net (_http://netaddress.usa.net_), a private Colorado Springs, Colo., company that stopped charging for its NetAddress lifetime e-mail service after eight months and relaunched a free, ad-supported service in December. Since then, the company has added 200,000 subscribers and is signing up 2,000 new users a day. The first ads go online this weekend, said John Street, USA.Net president and founder.

"I've noodled around with this for a long time and it's for real," Street said.

Another Colorado company, Mercury Mail (_http://www.merc.com/_) in Denver, has had similar success with a free custom news service broadcast to subscribers' e-mailboxes. Since going online in June, Mercury Mail has signed up 700,000 subscribers who select from news, weather, sports, stock and entertainment topics. The company is just beginning to go after ads.

Mercury Mail recently signed onto Netscape's Inbox Direct program, which allows people who use Netscape Navigator 3.0 to receive e-mail messages formatted as Web pages in the browser's built-in mailbox.

Since Netscape launched Inbox Direct in October, more than 3.5 million people have signed up for the free service and the company has partnered with 50 publishers, most recently the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Sports Illustrated.

"It's a huge success because we can (bundle) content that is relevant to people and deliver it to them," said Jennifer Bailey, Netscape customer marketing vice president. "From the content provider side, they can give people information in a form that's more interesting to read."

Netscape is getting some competition.

Earlier this week, U.S. Interactive (_http://www.usinteractive.com/_) introduced Digital Bindery, which also delivers Web pages to subscribers via e-mail. Whereas Netscape's service requires that users run Navigator software, Digital Bindery works with other e-mail programs, including popular software such as Eudora Pro and cc:mail. ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----

(Michelle V. Rafter writes about cyberspace and technology from Los Angeles. Reach her at mvrafter(at)deltanet.com. Opinions expressed in this column are her own.)