SAN FRANCISCO (04/10/2000) - Zaplets aim to reinvent your in-box, and they might just do that.
Announced in March, FireDrop Inc.'s Zaplet service brings some of the best features of the Web and instant messaging into your e-mail client.
You can use a public beta of the service to do simple polling, task management, picture swapping, and other tasks in small- to moderate-sized groups. You start by sending a message from the Zaplet Web site. As your friends or colleagues answer your Zaplet, all responses are automatically updated in the Zaplet already in each person's in-box. That way, you get the up-to-date thread in one familiar place. (If your e-mail doesn't show HTML, you click a link to view the message at the Zaplet site.) Once you receive a Zaplet, you can create new ones right from your in-box.
It's a snap to create Zaplets. My colleagues found it mildly amusing and perhaps even helpful to plan a lunch date this way. And in your personal time, Zaplets could be a great way to share photos.
Zaplets will push past those uses, though, because the messages are always up-to-date and always under your control in a way that conventional e-mail isn't.
Escaping E-Mail Bondage
If your broker sends you e-mail about stocks, no matter when you open the message, it contains the current stock prices, says David Roberts, FireDrop president and cofounder. Ditto for an online auction--you'd always see the very latest bids (if you're online when you open the message).
You can limit how messages are distributed: prevent them from being forwarded, limited to "friends of friends," or disappearing after they are read once. "You even can send out Mission Impossible mail--'this message will self-delete in 30 seconds'," Roberts jokes.
Zaplets can pull off such tricks because of their diabolically clever design.
When you open a Zaplet, it combines HTML with proprietary code to send you to Firedrop servers. Your mail message isn't really in your client or mail server; you're looking at an alias that points to content on a FireDrop server.
Most of us "really have low expectations for e-mail," since it has remained almost unchanged for 30 years, Robert comments. "Now people will be able to do things with e-mail that they always wanted to do." He says Zaplets provide the key advantage of instant messaging: real-time information. And Zaplets can help to overcome some Web hassles: "As great as the Web is, [each site] is still a destination and you still have to remember where to go," Roberts says.
Naturally, Zaplets bring their own issues.
For one, standard e-mail clients like Outlook Express don't cache Zaplet content, so if you're not connected to the Net, you'll get a blank spot in the Zaplet instead of the most current information. But if you're on a plane, wouldn't you rather see yesterday's version of the message than nothing, and be able to create a new Zaplet? (FireDrop says it is working on this.) Zaplets highlight the limits of most e-mail clients, which are already apparent to those of us who spend as much time e-mailing as we do sleeping. E-mail clients are becoming personal information managers, but remain fairly clueless about organizing material over long periods. If you set all messages to delete after 30 days due to sheer volume, like I do, where do your Zaplets live?
(Okay, you can still find them on Firedrop's site, but do you bother with Web collaboration tools now?) And e-mail clients still don't handle Web content well. For example, by integrating a browser, my Notes 5 client lets me stuff more content into its various corners, which is great. But it treats the data differently; for example, I can't plop a Web page into an in-box folder I use to manage my work life.
This problem might only get more dramatic. Lotus's upcoming Raven knowledge management system should be a wonderful cockpit for eyeballing a flood of corporate and external information. But we might get only the most rudimentary cut-and-paste options to swap info around--Raven might turn out to be more like a Magpie.
Living in Real Time
Some applications already do recognize one Zaplet advantage: instant updates.
Netscape 6 integrates with America Online's Instant Messenger. If you're online and about to send e-mail, Netscape checks whether the recipient has AIM loaded.
If so, an instant message might save barrels of time.
Zaplets bring an interesting synergy to instant messaging, Roberts says. "We use a List Zaplet as a task manager...If you're the only one with a task undone," that gets noticed, and you might get a pointed instant message, he says. Over time, such real-time interactions will take on many roles now filled (none very effectively) by collaboration tools.
A Little Manner of Money
Basic Zaplet service is free for consumers. FireDrop will charge to rent to dot-coms for the service, and will sell the underlying software to corporations that build their own Zaplet servers. The company plans to release Zaplet customization tools this summer, which will also be free to consumers and sold to corporate developers.
FireDrop holds more than a dozen patents related to Zaplets. But there are no natural Net monopolies, and rivals may jump on the basic idea. AOL and Microsoft could run pretty fast with the idea, given their vast resources, their leading mail clients, and their humongous server farms. In fact, the business logic is that FireDrop will get bought this year by one of those dueling giants, or by Yahoo or another deep-pocketed Net firm.
Regardless of how and where the cash flows, "Zaplets will fundamentally change the way people think about e-mail and the Web," Roberts declares. Brave words, but Attack of the Zaplets may soon play in an in-box very near you.