Coming to an inbox near you: disappearing email?

If you read an email message, and then it disappears, did it ever really exist? Emerging technology might soon make that more than an existential question.

          If you read an email message, and then it disappears, did it ever really exist?

          Emerging technology might soon make that more than an existential question.

          A handful of small software manufacturers is now selling digital rights management software for email, allowing users to decide how long messages remain on their desktops, whether they can be forwarded or copied, and even if emails can be recalled after they've been sent and opened

          The ability to retrieve or revise already-opened messages is available only from vendors such as Atabok in Newton, Massachusetts, and Authentica in Waltham, Massachusetts., although others such as Disappearing in San Francisco now provide stored encryption keys that expire when the user specifies.

          But major vendors are slated to release programs allowing email users to do much the same thing. Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Lotus Development this year included limited digital rights management features in its Notes software, allowing an email sender to set permissions effectively blocking the recipient from forwarding or printing a message. And Microsoft's Outlook 2002 lets the sender retrieve mail after it has been sent.

          Michelle Sanger, technology manager at Landor Associates, a corporate branding firm in San Francisco, says she currently uses Atabok to track email messages. For her, owning the message is less important than being able to track it. "When the client pays us to create a design, they own it," she says. Being sure a document has arrived on a client's desktop is a priority, she says, and using Atabok is cheaper than other solutions.

          "It's so easy to rely on FedEx," she says. "We're trying to get away from unnecessary costs."

          Most people think about Napster and audio files when they consider digital rights management, according to analyst Joshua Duhl at International Data Corpporation in Framingham, Massachusetts. But the potential use for such software is greater in the messaging environment because of the popularity of email on the internet, he says.

          There are also business and legal reasons for protecting message data. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, vulnerable intellectual property, legal protection and privacy are among the top concerns likely to spur the adoption of digital rights management software in email systems, Duhl says.

          David Ferris, president of Ferris Research in San Francisco, agreed on the need for such software, but noted that it's only now beginning to emerge in the marketplace.

          "It's still very early days for them all," Ferris says, adding that adoption has so far been hindered by the fact that the software is so new and in some cases limited. For example, Disappearing only works with Outlook on the sender side, and Atabok just released its retrieval tool last week.

          Widespread adoption could be commonplace once Notes and Outlook incorporate digital rights management tools in their programs. And that, say analysts, could squeeze out those companies and third-party vendors now producing early versions of the software.

          Sanger says she agrees. If more digital rights features were incorporated into her current Notes software, she says she wouldn't need to use a third-party solution.

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