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Dear Sir: The letter is back

E-mail was supposed to conquer all in its wake. CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos explains why computer users had other ideas about that.

A medium of communication is rapidly gaining popularity in the upper echelons of corporate America.

It's called letter writing.

Derided as snail mail, letters appear to be making a comeback, thanks in part to spam, viruses and other plagues of computing and communications.

Aceva Technologies, which makes financial management and invoicing software for large corporations, has landed deals with various Fortune 1000 companies that began with paper correspondence, Chief Operating Officer Sanjay Srivastava said. On the other side, Sue Sadler, a director in the information technology department at Honeywell in the United States, admits she is more receptive to well-crafted letter pitches than to other types of communication.

"I get 800 e-mails a day," Sadler said.

A corporate headhunter told me that one of his favorite techniques for nabbing a new client is to write a personal, handwritten letter to the potential job candidate. More often than not, the prospective candidates at least reply.

Even Bill Clinton reportedly wrote the 900-plus-page memoir of his presidency with a pen, an idea he may have come up with when Hillary banished him to the couch during the Lewinsky scandal and he presumably didn't have access to a computer. (Who knew the White House had a den?)

The working world, of course, was supposed to graduate from paper by now, just as the clay tablet industry took a dive with the invention of papyrus. Compared with e-mail, paper harbors a lot of disadvantages. It takes up space, needs filing cabinets, rips and gets lost. Getting everyone's feedback on a proposal requires shuffling around the office with a tattered piece of paper with scrawled initials and coffee rings.

In almost any situation, creating, distributing and/or sending a paper message costs a lot more.

Free and fast communication, though, has its problems. Because the cost of e-mail is so low, spammers only need one in 1,000 recipients to respond to their pitches. Measurement site SenderBase has estimated that 665 million e-mails a day come from domains at cable giant Comcast, which has been highlighted as a source of spam. Another 2.3 billion messages daily come out of the top 10 domains. The deluge of spam has in turn led to the problem of people throwing out messages they really want.

Most important, the cultural conventions of electronic communication have yet to be established. Security leaks and embarrasing disclosures have become far more common with the growth of e-mail.

Instant messaging is even more primitive. Most users tend to think of it as "instant response," where a reply should come fast, or else.

Letter writing, though, requires skill. Aceva's Srivastava said he first studies a potential customer carefully. He then writes a letter that begins by analyzing the company's recent financial performance and goes on to identify how much more revenue it would have garnered in the most recent quarter had it installed Aceva's invoicing software.

The same principle of studying the target works in public relations pitches. If a PR agent called me up, for instance, on a story about dual universal asynchronous receiver/transmitters with inter-IC bus support, I wouldn't know what to do with it. It's a foreign language. On the other hand, if you claim your client has a novel solution for high-k gate dielectrics, I will likely exclaim, "Vile temptress! Your siren song calls me. I will take briefing."

Letter writers also have to figure out how to get the recipient to open the envelope. The corporate headhunter explained that he introduces himself through letters, as opposed to phone calls or e-mails, because a lot of executives take their mail home and read it on the weekend. This means he can sneak by the filter of the administrative assistant.

Writing correspondence in longhand further helps it stand out from the mass of mail. Executive vice presidents of marketing, after all, don't get many fan letters, so that handwritten envelope will be intriguing.

If the trend toward letter writing grows, maybe other 19th-century conventions will return. In the near future, corporations could start to place footmen in the lobby with silver trays for visitors to place their calling cards in. "Tell the Canon copier representatives to leave. I have the vapors and am not taking visitors," office jockeys may someday reply. We might even see the return of the three-martini lunch--or even lunch itself.

If you have any thoughts on the matter, do write in.