So Long To Clunky Web E-Mail

Finally, Net programs are as supple as desktop software

If you have ever had to peruse piles of mail on a Web e-mail program such as Hotmail, or use aol.com to check your America Online (TWX ) messages from work, you know how painful it can be. You don't see a preview of the message text. Paging through a big inbox can take forever. And just moving messages to folders requires multiple steps.

Corporate applications on the Web can be even worse. Used to manage travel and entertainment and other human-resources functions, for example, these programs are often clumsy and slow. Yet companies love them because they're easy and cheap to maintain. Since no software is installed on employees' desktops or laptops, there's no fussing to make sure that every machine has the latest version of the application and all its security patches, and no concerns about compliance with software licenses. It is also much easier to give traveling workers secure access to Web-based programs than to give programs running on their laptops safe access to data behind firewalls.

Thanks to all these advantages, use of Web apps continues to grow, despite their galling limitations. Now there's good news for both consumers and corporate users. The latest Web programs look and perform like traditional desktop programs such as Microsoft Office. The secret is something called rich Internet application technology. It's likely to have a huge impact in the world of business, but some of the first deployments will be in consumer services.

A NEW WEB MAIL PROGRAM from America Online and a forthcoming one from Earthlink show the technology to good advantage. The new AOL Web mail service is superior in some ways to AOL software you install on your PC. In addition to being fast, it shows all your folders in a pane to the left of the message list, and you can move messages simply by clicking on them and dragging them to the appropriate folder. This won't sound like a big deal to users of Microsoft Outlook or other programs that run on your desktop. But it's a big change for Web mail.

The new Earthlink Web mail program, which will be made available to subscribers in June, is a more dramatic step up. The limitations of traditional Web programs often cause them to spawn multiple windows on your screen. That doesn't happen with the Earthlink mail, which bears a strong resemblance to Microsoft Outlook Express and lets you handle most tasks within a single, multipane window. All your mail appears in a single list that you can scroll through, rather than being broken into pages of 25 or so messages each. You can read the text of a selected message below the inbox list. You can also move messages by dragging them to folders, and you can resize the panes and columns simply by moving the dividers between them.

It will take a while for these richer Web apps to become pervasive, especially in business. Enterprises have invested heavily in older Web-based programs, and with technology budgets tight, they tend to leave alone things that work, even if they are less than optimal. Fortunately, companies such as Laszlo Systems (which designed the Earthlink mail program) and JackBe provide tools for the rapid conversion of traditional Web programs to rich Internet applications.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft (MSFT ), whose business is based on traditional desktop programs, isn't rushing into rich Internet apps. This is bad news for the large number of mobile workers who reach their corporate mail using the painful Outlook Web Access, which is not due for an overhaul for another 18 months or so. But almost everywhere else, the prospects for Web applications are getting a lot brighter.

For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE