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Electronic Explorer

Web-Based E-Mail Lightens Laptop Load

July 12, 1998|LAURA BLY

Forget those grainy postcards that never reach home before you do: Thanks to electronic mail, it's now possible to launch an instant message, complete with digital snapshots, from almost any corner of the globe.

But what if your definition of traveling light doesn't include a 6-pound laptop? And what if you'd rather face a bout with Montezuma's revenge than deal with the special plugs and adapters required to connect your computer in a foreign country?

The solution: Free Web-based e-mail that sends and receives messages from any computer with an Internet connection and a browser, which is a program that lets you type in Web addresses. Dozens of advertising-supported services have cropped up in the past year or so, letting travelers access e-mail from airline clubs, cyber cafes, hotel computer kiosks, business centers and offices worldwide.

"Even if you're in love with your computer, it's a major inconvenience to lug it around on your shoulder," acknowledges Bob Lawson, editor of Roadnews (http://www.roadnews.com), a Web site devoted to resources for keeping laptop computer users connected while traveling. "You worry about it being stolen, and then you have to dial in" to an Internet service provider from a hotel or other unfamiliar location--a process that Lawson admits can be "a very steep learning curve."

Many Web-based e-mail services include such features as the ability to attach files, create folders and address books, and check online spelling. Some allow you to forward and sort messages from existing e-mail accounts. (For a comparison of features, check the May issue of PC Magazine, http://www.pcmag.com).

Even America Online Inc., the country's largest online service, is getting into the act. AOL's 12 million members can now access their e-mail via the Web at http://www.aol.com/netmail/home.html, though the computer they're using must be equipped with Windows '95 and a current version of Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator browsers. (To use the latter, you'll need to download additional software first.)

As the helpful Free Email Address Directory (http://www.emailaddresses.com) points out, the booming popularity of Web-based e-mail has created some problems. Since the directory of e-mail providers launched in January, about 20 outfits have either suspended their free e-mail service or have become so swamped with users that they are too slow to be usable. The best safeguard: Consider a larger, well-established company such as Hotmail (http://www.hotmail.com), iName (http://www.iname.com) or NetAddress (http://www.netaddress.com), or the free e-mail provided through such major directory sites as Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com), AltaVista, (http://www.altavista.digital.com) and Excite (http://www.excite.com).

Unlike other e-mail systems, Web-based e-mail can't be composed offline, at your own pace.

What's more, many Web-based services require a current Web browser (at least Netscape Navigator 3.0 or Internet Explorer 3.0) to operate, and the advertising banners that rotate as you read your messages can slow access and be distracting.

But such drawbacks are a minor price to pay for so much convenience, says NetAddress user Jeff Wiesinger. As operations manager for a company that services power plant builders around the world, Houston-based Wiesinger is on the road more than 30 weeks a year. Like most road warriors, he lugs his laptop with him--but prefers to bypass balky and expensive long-distance connection charges in favor of checking messages via a computer at his hotel or client's office.

"No matter where I am, my e-mail is just a local phone call away," he notes, adding that "sometimes, my laptop never even comes out of its case."

Electronic Explorer appears the second Sunday of every month. Laura Bly welcomes comments and questions; her e-mail address is laura.bly@news.latimes.com.

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