A couple years ago, Brandeis University computer scientist Jordan Pollack received an e-mail with a seven-megabyte file attached. Frustrated by how long it took to download the file, Pollack created a system to automatically strip attachments from e-mail and put the files on a Web site, replacing them with a Web link. This “thinned down” his e-mail inbox, so Pollack called his creation Thinmail. He liked the idea so much that, in 1999, he launched a company to bring it to market.
Pollack says the Waltham, MA-based company’s system is “just more polite than sending huge attachments.” But it could change the way people use Palm Pilots, cell phones and other mobile devices to check e-mail. With little memory to spare, these systems normally discard attachments. But Pollack created an “e-mail bot” to allow users to manage the files, which the Thinmail system stores on its own server. An attachment can be sent to a nearby fax machine for printing, forwarded to someone else, or, for certain file types such as Microsoft Word and HTML, translated to plain text and its first 100 lines returned to the mobile user for viewing. The system currently handles over 30 standard Windows, Mac and UNIX file types; future plans include support for scanned documents and voice messaging.
Thinmail charges users via a micropayment system based on storage space used-storing a 10-megabyte file for one day, for example, costs five cents. The company signed up its first customer last September; as of January, it had over 350 users.