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E-Mail Services May Be Free, but They Come With a Price

September 08, 1997|KIM KOMANDO

The saying "You can't get something for nothing" is older than dirt--old enough that you can be sure whoever said it first never used the Internet. People who regularly use the Net know that there's plenty of free stuff out there in cyberspace. It's just that the free stuff isn't always necessarily useful stuff.

Now, free e-mail--that's another story. Survey after survey confirms that e-mail is the most common use of the Internet. So if you could get it for free, that would be a great deal, right?

The truth is that all sorts of companies offer free e-mail--well, at least free in that you don't give up any money. You do have to give up something else, though: your right to use e-mail without being barraged by advertising. So even though these companies are giving you something for free, they're also selling something to somebody else because of you. That something is advertising space, and that somebody else is any company that wants you to buy its products.

If you don't mind the advertising, free e-mail really is a good deal.

Probably the most talked-about free e-mail service is Juno ( Juno is unique among free e-mail services because you don't need to have any kind of Internet access to use it.

Instead, Juno gives you free e-mail software that you use to dial Juno telephone numbers. When you make the connection, the software retrieves your incoming mail and sends off any e-mail you have waiting to go out.

There are limitations, though. Juno says it has about 400 phone numbers that offer local access to about 95% of the country. However, if you happen to live in the other 5%, you're out of luck, unless, of course, you don't mind dialing a long-distance number, which defeats the purpose.

Also, the Juno software runs only on Windows 3.x and Windows 95, and the company has no plans to develop any other versions. If you use DOS, a Mac or any other type of system, Juno isn't for you.

Hotmail is another popular free e-mail service. Unlike Juno, it requires access to the Internet--specifically, to the World Wide Web. When you sign up for Hotmail, you get a password to use at the Hotmail Web site (

Once you type in your password, Hotmail presents all of your e-mail in a Web-based interface. In other words, it lets you send and receive e-mail right through your Web browser without using an e-mail program.

What good is free e-mail if you need Internet access to use it? For starters, using Hotmail means you can change Internet providers every week if you want--without ever changing your e-mail address. Also, just because you need Internet access doesn't mean you need your very own.

If, for example, your public library offers Internet terminals, you could do all your e-mailing from there and still end up getting the whole shebang for nothing.

Be forewarned about checking your Web-based e-mail at a public library: Some libraries have limited the Web-browsing program's capabilities, including disabling the ability to hide your tracks by clearing the browser's cache files or history files. This means that when you leave an Internet terminal after checking your e-mail, the next person could conceivably see your e-mail in-box and out-box.

Clicking the browser's back button to put a new screen in view is not a good enough precaution. Instead, take a few extra steps to protect your e-mail privacy. When you're done checking your e-mail, click the "home" button, which usually sends you back to the library's home page. Then, type in another Web site address. This way, the browser's back and forward buttons will toggle only between those two sites.

Another advantage to Web-based e-mail is that you can easily use it anywhere in the world that has Internet access. If you find yourself on the road much of the time, trying to send and receive e-mail from your local Internet provider can be costly and troublesome.

You end up either having to use the provider's 800 number--which isn't free because the provider charges per minute--or you can use a Telnet program to access your account. But either way, the mail you send and receive on the road never gets filed with all the mail sitting on your main computer back at home. A clear disadvantage is the inability to incorporate e-mail correspondence with your contact management program.

Another popular Web-based free e-mail provider is RocketMail ( RocketMail offers some pretty fancy features that you may not find in other free e-mail services. For example, it lets you organize your e-mail more efficiently by sorting different types of incoming e-mail into different folders that you set up.

Tired of all that junk e-mail, aka spam? RocketMail also offers "spam control." This option automatically rejects incoming e-mail from known spammers before you even get a chance to see it.

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