Throbbing e-mail

It's alive: Can a Zaplet tame your bloated in box?


Katharine Mieszkowski
April 5, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

The Silicon Valley P.R. mafia was
buzzing -- not about some new
technology, but instead, coincidentally,
over its own public image. A snickering
piece in the April Harper's Bazaar (the
fashion mag's "dot-com
issue"
), titled "Who Wants to Marry
a Multimillionaire?" cast "P.R.
bunnies" as the closest thing to
old-fashioned gold diggers in the new
economy.

Two weeks ago, Chris Holten Hempel, the
"chief detonator" at Spark Public
Relations in Palo Alto, fired off an
e-mail to 20 of her P.R. cohorts with
the subject line: "Congrats! P.R.
Bunny/Bimbo!"

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"OK, since I've been
receiving so much e-mail on the latest
Harper's article on 'P.R. babes' I
thought I'd open up this issue for
vote/comment (see the poll I put
together below) among the industry.
PLEASE FORWARD TO ALL THE P.R. PEOPLE
YOU KNOW."

It was the kind of contagious message
that could turn out to be a plague on
its recipients' already overloaded
in boxes: Imagine all the potential
replies and replies to replies and
replies to replies to replies.

But this wasn't an ordinary e-mail; it
was a new kind of message, called a Zaplet,
that brings a kind of interactivity to
e-mail. And so after 48 replies to
Hempel's message, there was still only
one e-mail in her colleagues' in boxes.

At first glance, a Zaplet looks like a
typical HTML-enhanced message, with
whizzy color, graphics and formatting.
But a Zaplet doesn't just look like a
Web page, as HTML-based mail does; it
acts like one. When you scroll down, you
can interact with the message, by
commenting on a bulletin board within
the e-mail or voting in a poll. If
your e-mail client doesn't accept e-mail
with HTML, and you receive a Zaplet, you
see a link to a Web page along with text
explaining who has sent you the
message.

In the case of Hempel's message, she'd
included a poll asking recipients how
they should respond to Harper's Bazaar's
slur on their profession:
"Flood Harper's with complaints about
the article? Do nothing and let it go?
Send a crapogram to the reporter's
house? See www.crapogram.com for more
details! Create a 'Ditzy Reporting
Award.' Hey, after all, we keep getting
slammed by the press. Let's fight back.
We deserve respect!"

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Vote results are tallied live in a graph on
the Zaplet itself. Reporters take note:
After 48 votes, the ditzy reporting
award option was clearly in the lead,
with 25 votes, or 52 percent.

"It's better than sending out e-mail,"
says Hempel -- who, just for the record,
doesn't represent FireDrop, the Redwood
City-based (and Kleiner
Perkins
-backed) start-up that has
created Zaplets. "Because it stays in
your e-mail box and you can keep going
back to it, and you don't have 50 e-mail
messages on a particular topic -- all
the data is in there."

"Opening a Zaplet feels like walking
into a meeting that's already going on,"
says FireDrop CEO David Roberts. But
this sort of dynamic e-mail takes some
getting used to.

In my own experiments with Zaplets, I
found myself wondering petulantly why
not one of four friends had sent an
e-mail response to my Saturday night
dinner invitation. Then it occurred to
me that, of course, I had to open the
original Zaplet again to see if anyone
had RSVPed, rather than wait for new
mail to arrive.

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So here I was, the sender of the
message, specifically trying to test out
this new nifty gizmo, not quite getting
it: Imagine what it would be like for
someone who just got a Zaplet out of the
blue.

Right now, FireDrop offers free Zaplets
for a variety of typical office-worker
functions like setting up a meeting,
planning a party, gathering contact
information for a company phone list or
discussing someone's
risumi. But even these
display what makes Zaplets more than
just a way to consolidate (though that's
certainly useful). These messages use
the computer not just to relay
information, but to perform another
function such as making the calculations
for a chart.

The product is still in beta, but it's
easy to see how it could be extended to
commercial applications such as running a
private auction or a sale on a specific
product, good only for one day, after
which the message expires. Click here
right in this message to buy now! In the
works, according to FireDrop co-founder
Brian Axe, is the "Mission Impossible"
Zaplet: "This Zaplet will self-destruct
in 30 seconds!" he laughs.

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Thankfully, the company isn't placing
ads on Zaplets, but instead hopes to
make money by selling its services to
companies who want customized Zaplets
for their customers. So for the moment,
the business model seems to depend on
keeping development of new Zaplets in
FireDrop's own hands.

Right now FireDrop is only giving away
the handful of initial Zaplets to
consumers, while developing more
customized versions for partner firms.
But, Axe mentions suggestively, that's
just Phase 1. "We don't want to be the
world's biggest bottleneck to creating
Zaplets," says Axe, choosing his words
carefully.

The company has more than a dozen patents pending on the
technology, which has competitors
raising eyebrows and calling their
lawyers. Josh Silverman, CEO of Evite.com, an online
invitation company in San Francisco,
says that it experimented with the same
concept over a year ago, but customers
didn't understand it. "The technology
behind Zaplet is super easy," says
Silverman. "When you open your e-mail,
it's the same as hitting a Web page
except it's in your e-mail box." Axe
counters that the hard part is making
the application understand what kind of
e-mail client you're using to make what
you see work for you.

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Every time you open the message, the
Zaplet contacts FireDrop's server to
look for new information. Of course,
this means opening a message may involve
a delay, just like calling up a Web
site; in effect, the Zaplet is clicking
on a link for you, which brings up the
new dynamic information in the message.
The result: As long as you're online,
the information is current when you open
the message, not just when it's sent.

If live e-mail sounds like a computer
version of the ebola virus waiting to
happen, don't be too nervous about
getting zapped. Zaplets do use
JavaScript, as well as HTML, but work
even if JavaScript is turned off. "What
they're doing is not risky," says
Richard M. Smith, a computer security
expert in Brookline, Mass., who
recommends shutting off
JavaScript as a preventive measure
against viruses.

Web usability consultant Jakob Nielsen,
who is on the advisory board of
FireDrop, thinks that wide use of
Zaplets could cut down the number of
e-mails we all receive by as much as 75
percent.

Reducing in-box obesity may sound like a
Holy Grail for time-starved,
information-overloaded Internet users.
But though Zaplets may help reduce the
number of clicks between us and the
information flowing toward us, they
won't necessarily reduce the volume of
that information. And cutting down on
the number of messages doesn't cut down
on the number of times that we'll have
to open them to see what -- if anything
-- is new.

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Still, Zaplets might make it easier to
tune out some interminable e-mail thread
that you never wanted to join in the
first place. And, now, instead of
compulsively checking to see if you have
new messages as a handy form of
procrastination, you can compulsively
open old messages to see if anything's
happened since the last time you looked.
Neat.

The other promise of Zaplets is to bring
some of the functions of Web sites
conveniently into your e-mail. In that
spirit, I've sent a Hunger Site Zaplet to
myself. I used to have to try to
remember to visit the Hunger Site every
day -- making my infinitesimal
contribution to charity -- by pulling
down the bookmark in my browser. Now, I
have to remember to call up my e-mail
program and dig up my Zaplet. In this
case, I'm not sure that I've gained
anything, except another e-mail awaiting
my attention.


Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

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