Communications: Companies get the message of electronic mail: Traffic builds on information highway

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A BRITISH software company is planning a flotation in the next few weeks to finance the development of its fast-growing business providing corporate customers with connections on to the Internet global information highway.

Peter Dawe, founding director of Unipalm, based in Cambridge, said most of the funds raised in the share placing - an anticipated pounds 6m against a likely market capitalisation of pounds 15m to pounds 18m - would be used to finance the expansion of Pipex, its Internet connection subsidiary.

The company's customer base is expanding rapidly as increasing numbers of British businesses recognise the importance of having access to the Internet. In the US, the traffic of electronic mail (e-mail) on Internet has already taken off. Many businesses now have their own internal computer networks, and hooking them up to Internet allows them to communicate with people in other organisations.

Faster than mail, more reliable than a fax, e-mail goes straight to the recipient's computer 'mailbox'. And people do not have to be at work to read their mail. By using a portable computer equipped with a modem, e-mail messages can be read and replied to while travelling on business.

Despite the conveniences, e-mail is not without its drawbacks. Since it replaces many telephone conversations, computer users are combining punctuation marks into 'emoticons' like the well- known 'smiley face' - :-) - and using them to restore some of the feeling that is usually carried in someone's tone of voice over the phone line (see box).

People are also having to adjust to the existence of accessible records that can be freely distributed within the workplace - which can be delicate in the case of the off-hand casual remark. E-mail can make it difficult for someone to claim that their past statements were misquoted or misunderstood.

Gossip about office romances can travel further and faster, and heaven help the one who sends off an ill-considered comment about the boss and finds it has been forwarded.

Security is also a potential problem, both within and outside the organisation.

There are commercial considerations, too. In contrast to the telephone system, where a regulated body is responsible for security, e-mail on the Internet is shunted around computers belonging to businesses, universities, research institutions and government agencies until it reaches its destination. Some companies worry about computer hackers intercepting their communications en route.

Internet currently links about 15,000 networks, two million computers and an estimated 20 million users. Nobody owns it: it is a loose association administered by a group of volunteers. Originally a spinoff from the US defence programme, early users included NASA, government contractors and universities. Then business discovered it. Some sources estimate that the number of computers connected to Internet is now growing at a rate of up to 10 per cent a month.

Because of the informal nature of Internet's administration, there is little way of checking this frequently quoted statistic. But Unipalm's Peter Dawe confirms that Pipex is also seeing its customer base expand by the same figure - hence, the flotation.

Before 1990, there were no commercial organisations on the Internet: now they constitute most of the connected hosts, according to Vinton Cerf, president of the Internet Society, the system's 'governing body'. Once on the Internet, users can freely access thousands of databases around the world, and monitor special interests on Internet bulletin boards known as newsgroups.

The use of these is greatest among academics and private individuals, but business users are expected to make more use of them once better on-line searching tools are available. Gradually, the traditional but clumsy tools known as 'gophers' (as in 'go for some information') are being supplanted by 'intelligent programmes' called 'knowbots'.

In the meantime, e-mail remains the main attraction for most business users of Internet. 'It is a technology whose time has come,' Mr Dawe said, recalling how quickly the fax machine became an indispensable business tool.

Funny faces

SOME TIMES a message sent by e-mail simply won't convey the strength of feeling behind it? When that is the case, try adding one of the following 'emoticons' to the text.

Here are a few, with some variations we had to make for typographical reasons. There are dozens more. The trick to reading them is just to tilt the head to the left. Have fun.

Emoticon = Meaning

:-) All smiles.

:-( Not very happy.

:-x Lips are sealed.

:-( Can't say.

:-o I'm shocked.

:- No comment.

:-& Tongue-tied.

:-l Have an ordinary day.

;-) A wink and a smile.

:-p That's my tongue sticking out.

&-) Don't ask me. I've been up all night.