Mailblocks Offers Free Challenge-Response Web E-Mail

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Taking a page from Yahoo's book, Mailblocks is expected to announce today the availability of a free, advertising-supported version of its challenge-response e-mail service to complement its paid service.


The free version offers much of the functionality of the fee-based Mailblocks Web e-mail service, which uses challenge-response technology to fight spam. The Los Altos, CA, company said the free service would introduce customers to the benefits of challenge-response and eventually move them to the more powerful premium version, priced at either $9.95 or $24.95 per year.


"One of the things we realized in talking to other e-mail service providers is that a lot of people want to try a free product and work their way up to a premium one," said Susan Bratton, vice president of sales and marketing at Mailblocks.


Mailblocks treats unknown senders as suspect, sending them a "challenge" -- a graphic of numeric code to be entered -- before their mail is delivered. The system is designed to combat spammers sending computer-generated spam. Marketers have complained such systems would unfairly block their mailings.


Despite the promise to make e-mail in-boxes 100 percent spam-free, Bratton admitted consumer awareness is still low.


"In general, people think that an anti-spam solution is filtering," she said. "We just need to educate people about what challenge-response is."


Mailblocks does not disclose how many customers have signed up for the service since its introduction in March 2003, but Bratton said sales were 30 percent above the company's goal for the year. To further goose its numbers, Mailblocks has acquired Emailaccount.com and will move its 50,000 users to Mailblocks services.


EarthLink is the only major Internet service provider to offer a challenge-response system, called SpamBlocker. EarthLink said about 8 percent of its users have adopted it since it was introduced in May. Use of challenge-response has been low enough that most e-mail marketers report seeing just a small number of challenges in campaigns.


The free Mailblocks service's Web interface will carry a few banner ads, normally skyscrapers or large rectangle ads. Ad network ValueClick Media will sell the inventory, and Adtegrity will handle ad serving.


The free version will not have all the capabilities of the paid service. Two missing features are the ability to manage existing e-mail accounts through the Mailblocks system and accessing Mailblocks e-mail from Outlook Express. The free version is also less robust, with only 5MB of storage, five "tracker" e-mail accounts for marketing messages and e-mail lists, and 15 rules for blocking mail. The premium services offer 15MB to 100MB, 15 to 25 trackers and 25 to 50 rules.


Mailblocks made upgrades to both the paid and free services, including new wizards to help set up account capabilities, added address book features and rules for diverting mail to specified folders. Mailblocks also will offer customers 20 e-mail domain options including luckymail.com, mail4me.com and easydoesit.com.


The company proceeded with the launch at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas despite the death of its founder and CEO, Phil Goldman, on Dec. 25 at age 39. Bratton said the cause of Goldman's death is still unknown. Rich Landsman, vice president of engineering, is serving as acting CEO.


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