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AltaVista unveils free email

Digital's search engine is the latest service to offer Web-based messaging to its users.

Playing a determined game of catch-up, Digital Equipment's (DEC) AltaVista today became the latest search service to offer free email.

The company announced that the Web-based messaging service is available through iName at AltaVista's site.

Analysts hailed the move as vital to the search engine's survival--and long overdue. "I think free email is a basic necessity to compete in the portal or online service business," said Forrester Research analyst Chris Charron. "It's a good step forward [for AltaVista], but one that is probably pulling up the rear in terms of trailing the rest of the pack."

The search firm said its new service includes features that other free email services lack, such as the ability to use an AltaVista-branded or personalized address.

With iName's technology, email users will have a free, permanent address and have a choice between a branded address or a personalized one, such as "@cyberdue.com," "@earthling.net," or "@teacher.com," according to AltaVista. Users also will be able to maintain independence from work or school with a separate message box and create email accounts for colleagues and family members with one Internet connection.

"We are pleased to work with iName as we embark on the next phase of AltaVista's expansion," Bob Hult, vice president and general manager of Digital's AltaVista search service, said in a statement.

Free Web-based email has become a hot Internet commodity recently, with major players making forays and acquisitions into the space. For example, Yahoo, Eudora maker Qualcomm, and Microsoft have bought or developed the capability as an enhancement to their services. Excite also offers free email.

Charron said AltaVista was between three to six months behind its competitors.

Portal sites aim to become Web surfers' first and most frequent destination by combining the features of search engines and directories, content aggregation sites, and online services. In order to compete, sites are faced with building full portfolios of content and services, Charron added, and free email is just the beginning.

"All of the portals are struggling to differentiate themselves to offer a wider scope of features and services," he noted. "There's a broad range of deals that AltaVista has to cut over the next six months in order to be successful."

Services offered by AltaVista's competitors include user home pages, instant messaging, shopping capabilities, and a range of branded content such as finance services and information.

One of the major weaknesses stymieing AltaVista is its September decision not to pursue a public offering, which resulted in the resignation of CEO Ilene Long. The company was left without the publicly traded stock that has helped its competitors negotiate deals and acquisitions.

"It takes money to purchase technologies, to establish relationships with content providers, or to buy companies outright," Charron said. "AltaVista does not have that financial strength to compete with the other portals."

One feature that does distinguish AltaVista is its new translation service, which translates phrases or whole Web pages into or out of Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, and Italian. Some analysts see the service--provided through SysTrans Software--as a way for AltaVista to capture a growing market: non-English speakers.

A division of GlobeComm, iName offers email technology and solutions to its Internet partners. The unit offers free email accounts, lifetime email forwarding, and Web browser-based email access, usually through relationships with 17 leading Internet and media companies.