A new kind of email

Startups like FireDrop are poised to strut their stuff at this week's trendy PC Forum showcase in Arizona

FireDrop, a secretive startup with high profile backing, is mounting an ambitious effort to change the way people communicate online. The company has developed a technology called Zaplets, which combines attributes of email and the Web. It works by allowing a user to send one Zaplet to several recipients, who can then view them with most current email programs. But while most electronic collaboration requires a string of emails, each Zaplet is automatically updated with recipients' responses.

Office workers selecting the best time for a meeting, for example, might send out a calendar Zaplet that adds notations as each employee indicates preferred times. A brokerage firm might mail out a client's stock portfolio each morning, but graphs would reflect later trading when the customer opened the message in the afternoon. A newspaper, for instance, could send out one set of headlines in the morning and revise them completely by dinner, although only one Zaplet would arrive at the user's mailbox.

FireDrop, which is closely held, is one of several companies announcing radical business plans this week at the PC Forum conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. But Zaplets have unusually broad potential, say some people familiar with the technology, because the company plans to let users and companies customise them for any business or recreational purpose.

Each Zaplet is akin to a Web page that is generated on FireDrop's servers each time a user activates it. For that reason, they can be slower to call up than conventional email. With an estimated 150 million email boxes in existence, the company acknowledges that managing a huge number of Zaplets with acceptable performance will require massive investments in computer infrastructure. "We are building one of the largest systems on the Internet to accommodate such traffic," said David Roberts, FireDrop's president and co-founder.

The company is the latest project of venture capitalist Vinod Khosla of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a firm that has backed such Web stars as Netscape Communications, Amazon.com and Sun Microsystems. Company directors include Joe Kraus, cofounder of Excite@Home.

Although Kleiner Perkins has put only $5m (£3.1m) into the company so far, Khosla makes clear that money isn't likely to be a problem as FireDrop attempts to build a new communications platform. "Email is obsolete and dead when you read it," Khosla said. "This is email that is current when read, not current when sent."

Zaplets were first conceived by FireDrop's co-founder, Brian Axe, with help from Roberts, a 10-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who has gone to unusual lengths to keep the company's plans secret. To throw snoops off the track, one test Web site associated the technology with a fictitious company called Zaplet. FireDrop required employees and partners to sign non-disclosure agreements with liabilities of $100,000 (£62,000) for leaks.

The company released a test version of the service on Monday, offering a dozen ready-made templates to allow people to start using Zaplets, including forms for scheduling activities, taking polls, holding discussions, sharing pictures and writing interactive stories. FireDrop plans to let consumers use the service for free, but will charge companies for building large scale applications for internal collaboration or customer services.

Another company coming out at PC Forum with a star studded investor list is Propel Software, a venture by Infoseek founder Steve Kirsch, which is offering technology and services to help companies set up good Web sites faster. It has raised $6m (£3.7m) from backers that include Andrew Grove, chairman of Intel, Netscape Communications co-founder Marc Andreessen, Dell Computer's chief executive officer, Michael Dell, eBay's chief executive, Meg Whitman, and retired General Colin Powell.

Also at PC Forum, OnePage.com is announcing a technology to allow people to pull pieces of content from other Web sites and place them in individualised pages. For example, a user might open up a browser each day to a page that includes headlines from a local newspaper's site, the latest quotes of favourite stocks, the local weather and a homework schedule from a primary school.

The company was inspired by the fact that most users only visit nine or fewer Web sites a month -- despite the millions now available. OnePage.com's investors include NJ Nicholas Jr., former co-chief executive officer of Time Warner, James Dimon, former chief executive officer of Citigroup and Strauss Zelnick, chief executive officer of Bertelsmann's BMG Entertainment unit.

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