In 1996 the world of electronic messaging was forever changed by the arrival of the now ubiquitous web-based email service we all know as Hotmail.
For the first time, people were able to easily read and write e-mail from any PC with an internet connection, and more importantly, keep their private e-mail account separate to their work e-mail. In nearly a decade that's passed since then, there really hasn't been much improvement in the way that web mail is presented.
Hotmail, Yahoo mail and AOL mail all remain surprisingly stagnant with respect to new product development and seem to be focusing more effort on figuring out how to get their users to pay than they are in improving their users' experience.
Fortunately for everyone, there's a new start-up based in San Francisco that's looking to turn the whole web-based e-mail world on it ear.
The company is Oddpost, and their solution to the portable e-mail problem is to actually build a full fledged e-mail client that downloads into your browser when you log into the service.
The amazing thing is that its NOT an independent e-mail program, but works as a combination of server code and downloaded scripts that run inside Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser (Mozilla support is coming this summer).
What this means is that you get the best of both worlds; an e-mail "client" that looks like an application, but is downloaded into any browser you happen to be using. So it doesn't matter whether you are reading your Oddpost mail client at your home PC, your work PC, or at an Internet Cafe in Kathmandu, you can still sort messages into folders as easily as you can click your mouse and drag and drop.
The desktop-style interface goes beyond just drag & drop - there's address auto-completion, right-click menus & shortcut keys and it has all the niceties of the normal email client you have grown to love, with customisable from and reply-to addresses, custom signatures and you can import your address book.
Last but not least, there's also a news and blog aggregation facility - a very important feature once you've begun using it.
With SPAM filtering, a customisable spelling checker and rich text editing all built in, the Oddpost service almost needs to be seen to be believed, and fortunately they offer a free trial for 30 days on their website (http://www.oddpost.com) so you can do just that.
Just to cover off some of the most desirable features of Oddpost, you get 50MB of space, and you can receive and send attachments up to 10mb - this is way in excess of what you get with HotMail.
While the Oddpost service itself is an amazing achievement it has a few oddities of its own that may make it less attractive for power users or folks connecting to their work e-mail servers.
The first is it's lack of support for the Mozilla and Netscape browsers which, while having a smaller user base than Microsoft's browser, are still used by a sizable number of people.
The second is the "odd" way that the service deals with external IMAP4 mail accounts. Instead of showing the messages and folders in your IMAP (or Exchange) account, new IMAP messages are plucked from your IMAP server and stuck into your Oddpost inbox. That's not exactly the way that anyone who actually uses IMAP to connect to their Microsoft Exchange server would want things to work. Folks that just want to get a new address at "oddpost.com" or use an existing POP mail account won't have this problem.
If you can live with these minor oddities, and need or want a better way to handle web mail than the existing web-based services, then Oddpost could be for you.
Oddpost is available from the company's website at http://www.oddpost.com. Price: 30 days free, 1 year US$30
Some screendumps to give you an idea of how "application-like" the Oddpost service is:
See the stories that matter in your inbox every morning