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E-mail creator turns technology into business

July 16, 2001

EMERYVILLE — Twenty years ago, Eric Allman wrote the code for the world's first Internet mail program when he worked as a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

Since he used open source code, what became known as "sendmail" technology could be used by anyone technically competent enough to erect an e-mail communication system. He literally gave the software away.

For three years now, however, Allman and Greg Olson have been creating commercial value from the technology and making money through their company Sendmail Inc. by providing services to enable large organizations to manage and route e-mail.

Because of sendmail's accessibility over the last 20 years, it now powers 60 percent of domains on the Internet and more than 1 million copies of the software are in use.

"The other 40 percent is split among 50 other implementations," said Olson, chairman and executive vice president of business development for Sendmail.

Today they are gaining customers in a world that was already saturated with technology that had been freely available.

Emeryville-based Sendmail now counts large corporations as its customers. The Library and Information Services Department of San Jose State University recently incorporated a Sendmail product so its 1,000 users could access their e-mail on the Web rather than through Eudora or other non-Web based means. Another very large East Coast retailer is about to announce a deal with Sendmail.

"We go into some large companies and re-architect their whole e-mail systems," said Allman who is Sendmail's chief technology officer. They are adding pushbutton installation so large companies that are not technology businesses can launch and operate the system with relative ease. The ability to manage and monitor the system and store the e-mail are additional product lines.

But he stressed that Sendmail is today selling more than the e-mail technology. Their customers, he said, "are buying the expertise of the people behind it. They're buying a sense of security. ... It makes sense we're making money."

Asking Allman to restructure your company's e-mail system is something like asking Thomas Edison if he could fix your lamp. Sendmail went into the marketplace three years ago with huge name recognition. "We had mindshare to burn," he said.

Still, there are challenges ahead thanks to the pervasive presence of e-mail and the reliance of modern day life and business on the technology. And the kinds of messages it encompasses have grown. The two executives said that e-mail has become "an all-purpose envelope" for communications as varied as billing and periodical subscriptions. And it is easily searchable, unlike the pile of papers on your desk.

But the challenges ahead lie in two main areas: the proliferation of e-mailboxes and the sheer growth in the amount of e-mail and the additional support that requires.

Today a user may have several e-mailboxes. Besides the access she has through her Internet Service Provider, a user may have a free Hotmail or Yahoo e-mail account. She may be a subscriber to some Web-based service that offers free e-mail to lure eyeballs to their site. And she may have a cell phone that also gives her a mailbox.

Today's user needs to decide how to manage her e-mail.

"Last week I was in Europe all week, and I wanted to read my e-mail in a different place than I want to read it today," said Olson. While there are ways of re-routing your e-mail to another address, do you want to receive all of it while you're in Zurich? Or just business messages and only certain business messages?

"The ability to control the way the Internet works for you is going to need solution," Olson said.

Several European governments have been considering giving all their citizens an e-mailbox to reduce the cost of communicating with them. Sendmail has consulted with more than one government but Olson said it will be time before any of the countries makes a decision in this area.

The sheer volume of e-mail is staggering and is growing in a "steep geometric curve," Olson said. "We're very busy upgrading the infrastructure. Every e-mail system will be out of gas in the next five years."

Sendmail foresees a huge opportunity simply supporting the future increases in business e-mail. Not just the volume but also the attendant services, such as encryption and filtering technologies.

"People are upgrading their e-mail infrastructure, not necessarily because it's about to collapse under the weight of existing mail, but because it doesn't do the stuff they need it to do," said Allman.

Allman can't get over the irony of his situation. Recently honored by Computer World, he said "I find it amazing that here I am being honored in the business and related services category for a piece of code I wrote 20 years ago and have given away ever since."

It's only fitting perhaps that today Allman receives between 300 and 400 e-mail messages on a normal weekday.

By Francine Brevetti, Copyright © 1999-2001 by MediaNews Group, Inc. and ANG Newspapers


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