There may not be any such thing as a free lunch, but there is such a thing as free electronic mail. If you have access to the Internet and can use a World Wide Web browser, you are only seconds away from having a free Web-based e-mail account.
The astute observer will quickly remark, "Wait a minute -- if I already have access to the Internet, I already have an e-mail account." Right you are.
Suppose you have a single dial-up account with a commercial Internet service provider (ISP) that came with an e-mail account, but there are others in your family who would like to have e-mail access as well. At best, your ISP is going to charge you more money for additional e-mail accounts, and at worst, you may have to get separate dial-up accounts for each e-mail address you need.
Free Web-based e-mail is ideal for people in that situation. As long as your main dial-up account gives you access to the World-Wide Web, anyone in your family can get his own Web-based e-mail account for free.
Or suppose your only access to the Internet is through a public machine, say at a library or in a lab at school. You don't even have to own a computer to take advantage of a free e-mail account on the Web. You can send or receive e-mail from any computer anywhere in the world that has access to the Web, from public libraries and schools to cybercafes or public kiosks.
Naturally, there is a hitch. No company out there is going to give away free e-mail accounts without expecting something in return. In this case, however, it's not money they want -- they want your time and attention, even if only for a few seconds.
It's advertising that makes free Web-based e-mail possible. Here's how it works: You use a Web browser to visit one of the "freemail" sites (listed below), fill out a form in which you provide information about your interests and are given a user name and password.
Whenever you need to use your account, you just go to that site, enter your user name and password, and use their Web-based e-mail interface to send and receive messages. As you are using it, you'll see small ads on the screen from time to time that are selected according to the information you've provided on the questionnaire.
Web-based freemail companies are wholly supported by advertising revenue. Advertisers pay for the privilege of getting their ads in front of people who have expressed an interest in their products, and there's enough revenue left over to provide you with free e-mail.
There are at least five major Web-based e-mail providers, including some names you may already know. HotMail, at http://www.hotmail.com, has probably been around the longest, and both MailExcite (http://mailexcite.com) and YahooMail (http://mail.yahoo.com) have ties to major Web index providers. MailCity (http://www.mailcity.com) and RocketMail (http://www.rocketmail.com) round out my list -- there are others.
Which one should you choose? It's a toss-up, frankly, but you might find some comfort in a familiar name. None of these services guarantees they'll always be available or that they can provide secure e-mail service -- you should probably ask around and see what your friends and family are using. I'm finding more and more of my friends and acquaintances are using freemail of one type or another.
If you're using free Web-based e-mail, or if you decide to based on what you've read here, feel free to e-mail me -- I'm interested to know how it's working for you.
-- Doug Heacock is director of the Kansas Research and Educational Network at Kansas University. You may address questions to him in care of the Lawrence Journal-World, 609 N.H., Lawrence 66044, or e-mail him at heacock