Net Buzz

FRAMINGHAM (04/03/2000) - A Zaplet is a souped-up e-mail package that combines the desirable elements of e-mail, instant messaging and the Web in a way that's designed to remedy the shortcomings of all three. Whether sending or receiving, Zaplets work within your standard e-mail client. The Internet-based service that powers Zaplets - currently in beta and available for a test drive at www.zaplet.com - is the brainchild of a California startup called FireDrop, which counts among its backers venture capital titan Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, as well as Sun technology guru Bill Joy.

An example helps paint a picture of what these Java-based Zaplets might be able to do for consumers and business customers in conjunction with FireDrop's back-end infrastructure. Say you need to send a message to 100 people about an upcoming business meeting or social event. Sending a plain old e-mail is easy.

Dealing with the 100 responses is not so easy.

"E-mail solves the one-to-many problem but doesn't solve the many-to-one problem of communication," says David Roberts, FireDrop co-founder and president. "In a Zaplet, you send out that one message to 100 people and you get just one message back, and that one message aggregates all of those responses from all of those individuals."

For example, you open your one message an hour after sending the Zaplet and you see that 10 recipients have responded. Six hours later 50 have made their intentions known. The next day, all but five are accounted for, and you still have only one Zaplet in your inbox, not 95 jumbled e-mail replies. Moreover, each of the 100 recipients has only their one Zaplet, yet they, too, can monitor the latest tally.

You can accomplish this kind of interaction on a Web site, but you face the hurdle of getting those 100 people to go to the site. People prefer the comfort of their in-boxes, FireDrop believes, yet they also want the type of dynamically updated content and exchanges that the Web provides.

Scalability will be a challenge for FireDrop, security will be a concern for network managers, and content providers will worry about their Zaplets being inadvertently zapped by overloaded e-mail users. But people are going to come up with all kinds of creative ways to use these things.

That lyric from the old Buffalo Springfield tune "For What It's Worth" came to mind this week as I read about the courtroom showdown between a couple of hackers and the makers of Cyber Patrol, a smut-blocking tool used by parents to protect young eyes. The vendor, Microsystems Software, dragged the hackers into court after the pair littered the Internet with their homegrown software that lets users - including savvy kids - bypass Cyber Patrol filters. The hackers say they were motivated by the fact that Microsystems refuses to divulge the list of Internet sites blocked by its software.

In essence, the hackers - our first wrong party - caved before the case got too far. They agreed to stop distributing their code.

Microsystems wins no medal here, however, despite prevailing in what it characterized as a simple copyright infringement case. The hackers - as well as more responsible critics - have lambasted Microsystems for keeping its blacklist a secret. That may not be censorship, as some have claimed - the First Amendment applies to government controls on speech - but it's wrong.

And finally there's the American Civil Liberties Union, which piped up on behalf of the hackers and a number of ISPs that had been asked by Microsystems to remove the Cyber Patrol workaround from mirror sites. The ACLU generally does a much better job of picking its fights.

Pick one with me by writing to buzz@nww.com.

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