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Apologies to anyone who attempted and failed to contact me at the
e-mail address given at the bottom of this column during the last three
weeks. It’s not that I hate you; it’s Hotmail’s
fault. Since Hotmail is one of the most
popular e-mail providers on the Web, I’ll explain briefly what’s been
going on.

I move around a lot, using several different computers in different
locations to access the Net. That’s why a free, Web-based e-mail service
like Hotmail, or one of its imitators
(MailExcite, Yahoo!
Mail,
and a swiftly growing plethora of others)
makes sense for me. Because these services let you access your e-mail
account through a Web site, you don’t need to dial-in using a particular
computer on which you’ve installed an Internet service provider’s
proprietary software. In fact, if you generally connect from an office
computer on a high-speed network hooked up to the Internet, you don’t
need to shell out for an ISP at all. A lot of people use these services
just so they can access personal e-mail at the office, avoiding the use
of their company e-mail addresses for private affairs.

Till now, I’ve never had any real problems with my Hotmail accounts
– attachments can be a little temperamental, and I wish they offered
automatic mail forwarding, but on the whole Hotmail has been extremely
reliable considering I don’t pay a cent to use it. A drawback is that
because such accounts are very easy to open anonymously, spammers tend
to use them, so a few spam-haters block all incoming e-mail from these
types of addresses. Occasionally I respond to some pleasant reader’s
e-mail, only to be rebuffed by a nasty automated message to the effect
that “so-and-so is not accepting e-mail from this address.” Too bad,
folks.

Hotmail and its competitors can afford to offer you e-mail for
nothing because it makes you part of an extremely regular audience for
their advertisers: whenever you check your e-mail, you’ll also see a
series of unobtrusively placed ads. It’s a well-established and
effective e-commerce paradigm that these services were among the first
to implement. Nowadays, thanks to e-business partners such as
Mail.com, everyone from the Houston
Astros
to the Jerusalem
Post
is offering free e-mail
accounts. (Look here
if you want to check out some of the myriad possibilities.) Even
individuals like you and I can easily offer free e-mail through our very
own Web sites these days, using a simple
CommTouch-powered program called
ZapZone.

The trouble is that since you’re not paying for the service, you’re
not in much of a position to hold it accountable when it fouls up. Which
brings me to my own recent difficulties. It seems that
leader-of-the-pack Hotmail recently decided to “enhance” its services –
with the predictable effect of causing a precipitous drop-off in their
quality. Over the course of the last month, I’ve occasionally not been
able to connect to my accounts at all. E-mails to me have disappeared
into deep space, bounced back to their senders, or reappeared again and
again in my account long after I’ve read and deleted them. And God only
knows what else has been going on that I don’t know about yet.

As for the so-called service enhancement, it appears to consist of a
selection of cheesy “stationery” options for outgoing e-mail. I can’t
rely on my e-mail reaching me, and I can’t get rid of it once it’s in my
inbox. BUT if I want to send someone an e-mail using a silly font, a
tacky design element running down the side of the page, and a color
scheme in dubious taste (I might add that none of this is customizable)
– well, gee, I guess I can do that now. Oh. Wait. No, I can’t. It makes
my browser crash. Oops!

Whatever genius department of Microsoft is in charge of Hotmail (the
Redmond behemoth purchased Hotmail two days after I first signed up for
an account) must have lost its collective mind. The value added by the
new stationery feature is negligible. And the glitches that arose during
its installation aren’t hour-long, day-long or even week-long problems,
they’re major service disruptions that have been going on for a
substantial, not to say disastrous, amount of time and show no signs of
having been fixed yet. Not impressive. Not impressive at all.

If things aren’t back to normal by the end of the month, I’ll be
looking to phase out my Hotmail usage in favor of some better solution
to my mobility issues. A leading candidate: new
MailStart, which offers free Web-based
access to the standard type of POP3 e-mail account you get from an ISP
like MindSpring or
EarthLink at home. From MailStart you can
access any e-mail account: you type in the full e-mail address and your
password and you’re away. This is definitely the future of free
Web-based e-mail. Now if I can just muster the energy to deal with
moving my enormous address books from my Hotmail accounts elsewhere,
notify everyone I’ve ever communicated with of the change, etc, etc …
Lord, it’s almost as bad as moving house. We’ll see.

Squeeek!

A new type of mouse from Kensington makes surfing the Web quicker and
more convenient. The Kensington
WebRacer

has preset buttons assigned to your favorite sites, browser tasks, and
e-mail inbox, and a “power scroller” that lets you scan your bookmarks
or favorites list without the usual pull-down-the-window exercise. The
WebRacer could definitely be prettier, but I still really want one.

Home improvements:
here’s how U Do It

The Better Homes & Gardens Home Improvement
Encyclopedia
site offers
do-it-yourself home help with an interactive twist. Using Shockwave
animations (download Shockwave if you
haven’t already done so — it’s ubiquitous on the Web these days), the
site demonstrates simple home repair projects. Sections include
plumbing, decks, landscaping, electrical and phone, and a tools
dictionary.

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