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AltaVista scraps free e-mail

As the economy continues to dry up, the company is gradually lopping off costly features. One of the casualties: portal-like services.

AltaVista said Tuesday that it will discontinue its free Web e-mail service, the latest online amenity to get axed as a result of cost-cutting measures.

The Internet search company notified its 400,000 subscribers by e-mail Tuesday that it would close the service as of March 31, according to AltaVista spokeswoman Krista Thomas. The company does not plan to forward e-mail or provide access to archives after that time.

AltaVista attributed the move to its renewed focus on search as opposed to offering consumers a range of portal-like services, including free e-mail.

During the dot-com boom, the company broadened its scope with shopping services and free Internet access, among other extras, in an attempt to compete with portals like Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN. But as the Internet economy dried up, it gradually lopped off the costly features.

The end of AltaVista's e-mail service is one among many casualties at Internet businesses, which have pulled back from giving away content in favor of charging subscriptions or emphasizing profitable ventures. As the online advertising market has shrunk, countless Web sites have been forced to charge fees for previously free material or discontinue features altogether. Just last week, a mainstay newsletter publisher, NetSurf Digest, started asking subscribers for $20 annually.

AltaVista said that its free e-mail was the last of its portal-like services after it made its change to focus on search. "As users became aware of AltaVista's pure search focus, usage of the service has waned," the company said.

"Over the past two years...the company has rededicated AltaVista.com to its original mission: providing Internet users with the world's most comprehensive search engine," according to the message sent to e-mail subscribers. Closing the free e-mail service, it continued, kept with this mission.

The company plans to send weekly notifications to e-mail subscribers before the deadline to ensure people transfer addresses and key messages in time. The company is also urging that subscribers inform friends before the closure.