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Web email changing fast, eyes profits

Free sites have set their sights on new services, Wall Street, the courts, and even users' pocketbooks, spurred by popularity and sophisticated technology.

Free Web-based email is seeing a flurry of new activity as providers set their sights on new services, Wall Street, the courts, and their users' pocketbooks.

The changes come as the email sites and technology providers try to turn their popular services into money-making businesses, either by circulating their millions of users to revenue-producing sites or hitting them up for premium services.

A number of the recent developments in the Web-based email space involve POP-based (Post Office Protocol) email, which Internet users typically get through their Internet service provider., formerly iName, has quietly launched a beta test of a new free service that lets users retrieve and manage their POP mail on the Web. The beta site is live at isn't the first site to offer users access to their POP-based email. The major Web mail providers--including Microsoft's MSN Hotmail and Yahoo Mail--already offer similar functionality. But will be among the first to focus on POP email.

"We see them as two separate needs by the consumer," said a company spokesperson. "There are people who have an account with an existing ISP and just want to retrieve that mail on the Web." already offers a similar service for use by Prodigy subscribers. will announce the new site next week at ISPCON in Baltimore. Another Web site that offers POP mail access is MailStart.

While is focusing on helping users import their POP mail to the Web, America Online is doing the reverse, charging users to export email from the Web to POP accounts.

AOL's Netcenter WebMail, powered by, recently started offering users the option of sending their Web-based email to their POP email accounts for offline management. The service appeals to users managing a large volume of mail because of the time it takes for the Web client to request a new page for each user command.

The email export function, which costs $19.95 per year, is one of seven premium services Netscape recently introduced. Others include virus scan, an automatic notification service for urgent messages, automatic forwarding to other accounts, five extra megabytes of storage, a blocker to get rid of Netcenter's automatically added tagline, and a blocker for banner advertisements. last month began offering these premium services as well.

The advent of premium services comes as the free email services struggle to turn their popularity into profitability. Free email on the Web has turned out to be wildly popular and equally expensive as millions of users flock to the sites, putting heavy demands on the servers and bringing always-on expectations to the services. They frequently have found themselves disappointed.

However, despite complaints, Web email providers report some success in getting users to pay between $20 and $25 yearly for premium services, especially for the POP-email export feature.

"People like that the most of all the services that we have," a Netcenter spokesperson said. reported a more lukewarm response.

"Some users were a little upset because we used to offer the POP access free, but overall it was something that really made sense from a business standpoint," said a spokesperson. "There were people who were upset by it, but at the same time we have a real solid customer base, handling over 9.6 million mailboxes. And it hasn't really deflated the service in terms of core functionality."

As revenues come into sharper focus, Web email technology providers are eyeing the public market. Both and recently filed for their initial public offerings.

While the technology providers prepare to go public, the portals that license their technology are tweaking their sites to get the most out of their traffic. Hotmail recently launched an overhaul with a number of changes aimed at circulating users throughout other MSN offerings.

And Yahoo Mail this week made a few changes of its own to highlight its other services, reorganizing its start page and adding graphics to emphasize those links.

Yahoo also took both legal and technological measures against spammers, long the bane of email existence both on and off the Web.

Yahoo on Thursday filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, seeking injunctive relief against two companies it accused of forging Yahoo return addresses in spam headers. The two companies are World Wide Network Marketing, whose former Web site at "" is now occupied by a Wester clothier, and Information Technologies Corporation. Yahoo is suing under both trademark and anti-spam law.

On the technological front, Yahoo recently added a feature long offered by rival Hotmail, which lets users block certain senders suspected of sending spam or other objectionable content.