Circuits | September 5, 2002, Thursday
With a Single Click, a Vast E-Mail Harvest


BACK in e-mail's early days, the McAllister family of Rancho Santa Fe, 
Calif., shared one computer, with an America Online account and a slow 
dial-up modem. Checking e-mail was a Sisyphean chore. 

Each screen name had to be signed on separately: a logged-on user had to sign 
off from AOL so that another family member could redial and log on. (That 
changed in the fall of 1998, when AOL introduced the "switch screen name" 

"It was so painful," said Craig McAllister, whose daughters are now 14 and 
17. "It was constant bickering over whose turn it was." Adding to the 
frustration, the girls would laboriously log on only to suffer disappointment 
if they had no e-mail.

"My wife said, `This is ridiculous - there has to be something.' " 

In fact, there was something. Mr. McAllister, whose background is in 
packaged-goods marketing, found software that checked several e-mail accounts 
at once but nothing that included AOL. So In mid-1999, he formed Tiburon 
Technology, recruited two programmers and developed something that did: 

EPrompter ( now dominates the relatively obscure category of 
e-mail notification software, which appeals to those who love to check as 
well as those who hate to. It has been downloaded a half-million times from 
Cnet's, a clearinghouse for downloadable software programs.

EPrompter lets a user check up to 16 e-mail accounts - including AOL, the 
widely used POP3 accounts and Web-based free accounts like Hotmail and Yahoo 
- with just one click. It got a lift in recent months as Hotmail and Yahoo 
imposed annual fees ($19.95 and $29.99, respectively) for certain services, 
including e-mail forwarding. In other words, users who want to maintain free 
accounts will have to do plenty of clicking. 

EPrompter has evolved to include some e-mail functions like the ability to 
reply and to set up an address book. It does not, however, save outgoing 
messages or download attachments, it does not come in a Mac version, and it 
can slow down computers with insufficient memory.

It is free, although a fee may be imposed within a few months. Similar 
services include AvirMail and @nyMail, which check fewer accounts and do not 
check AOL. Other programs, like The Bat, check many accounts as part of a 
more complex e-mail program and can be difficult for beginners.

Mr. McAllister said that the typical e-mail user has four accounts: for 
business use, personal use, online shopping, mailing lists, mindless chat and 
the like. Jane French, a computer programmer in Herndon, Va., has seven.

"Time is money," said Ms. French, who typically spends several weeks at a 
client's office before moving on to another project. "If I were to access all 
my accounts, that takes time from the client. I either don't bill the client 
or my lunch hour becomes very short."

Seeking software to lessen the tedium of checking, she found ePrompter and 
liked it. "If I had an urgent message, I could get it sooner because I could 
catch it at work instead of waiting until I got home," she said.

Speedy checking benefits travelers, too. A notification program on the laptop 
can minimize the cost of checking from hotels or other places that impose 
per-minute charges.

Just over half of ePrompter users set the program to check at intervals of 
five minutes or less, Mr. McAllister said. Those with a dial-up modem can use 
autodial, "so you can go to sleep, and when you wake up all your mail has 
been retrieved," he said.

The urge to check e-mail constantly is a strong one, said David Greenfield, a 
psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine who 
studies Internet addiction.

"It's like gambling - you don't know what you are going to get, and you might 
get something interesting or fun," he said. "That kind of intermittent 
reinforcement is very resistant to extinction.'`