Transient (Throwaway) Email Addresses

I wonder if it’s time for email providers like gMail and Hotmail to take a lesson from the banking industry.  Some banks now offer consumers the option to generate temporary credit card numbers to use for online shopping.  These temporary numbers generally have a spending limit associated with them, and a shorter expiration period than a typical credit card number. 

How would this work for email?  The main difficulty would be in the creation and input of the temporary addresses into online forms. The nature of the temporary addresses would likely make them hard to remember.  This is where Microsoft could play on a bit of Hotmail/MSN Toolbar synergy.  Basically, you create a plugin to the form-fill wizard that will detect when the user has entered their primary email address into an online form, and then you could gently suggest that they use a temporary address instead.  You can include options for how long the address should be valid for (3 months, 1 year, indefinite), and possibly let the user select a default automatic replace option.

On the Mail UI side, you could provide a way for consumers to find out what site gave out their address to spammers.  I’m thinking that the user would just hover their mouse over the “to” address and it would display some basic info such as “This email was sent to a transient email address.  This address was generated on 03/03/2005 for the site“.  You could also let users expire indefinite addresses, or other addresses that have been overrun with spam.

The benefits?  This lowers the value of all of those “verified email address” lists that are bartered on the gray market.  Even more importantly, it provides a chain of culpability when your email address is shared without your permission.

The difficulties?  User experience.  Getting this right so that everyday email users understand it will be tough, but doable.  The infrastructure to generate addresses and route/deny email is going to be complex (but if it lowers the overall spam load, you should free up some of the required resources).   Security?  Essential.  Branding?  What do you call this functionality so that consumers “get it”?  Cross Platform?  Please, leave the API open so that everyone can play.

Other random ideas:  Let users create vanity (self-selected) temporary addresses.  Maybe provide 3 free with any mail account, and let users purchase extra vanity “slots”.  This way consumers would have a way of throwing away overrun email addresses without losing all of their mail.  Whenever a user throws away an old address, let them create a new one for free. 

Many computer savvy users have been generating and abandoning temporary addresses for years.  Make this easy, and give the power to everyday email users, and the value of spam goes down. This isn’t the end-all-spam solution, but it makes it harder to abuse the email system, and hands some control back to the consumer.

Google’s Business Model

I was going to write a post about Google’s business model for hosted services, but Joe Wilcox at the Microsoft Monitor Weblog beat me to it.  In his post Google: It’s not about search, Joe outlines how it’s about information lock-in.  I can’t say it any better than Joe did, so I’ll just encourage you to go read his post.  Joe’s explaination applies to pretty much everything Google is currently doing, and to most of the rumors about what they might be doing in the future.  It’s not about advertising, it’s about control of the market.

Yawn…. Google and Sun are Cooperating.

The big announcement from today was nothing but fluff, in my humble opinion.  Basically, Google and sun are going to play nice, and the end result is that user’s downloads of various Google and Sun products are going to be bloated by bundling.

This doesn’t mean that Microsoft has nothing to worry about.  In the long view, if these companies really do learn to play nice together, it could spell trouble for the folks in Redmond.  Google appears to be sporadically rolling out free WiFi.  Sun’s CEO Scott McNealy has previously stated that he believed that computers in the future will be free.  When you bring Sun’s and Google’s various strengths and capabilities together, it could be a pretty daunting scene for MSFT (the company and the stock).  Google is buying up bandwidth and grid computing capabilities, and rolling out a WiFi last-mile.  Sun has some interesting technology with their Sunray thin clients.  Imagine that instead of paying a service fee (or software licenses), and buying hardware, you just sign-up and receive a smartcard in the mail.  You can use the smartcard anywhere there’s a compatible Google/Sunray client.  You plug it in and instantly, you have all of your email, all of your documents, and all of your authorized programs.  The Google/Sun alliance may even throw in a free Wifi laptop to make it easier for customers to hook in.

Are Sun and Google going to provide this service out of the goodness of their hearts?  Of course not.  In a future post, I’ll look at the business case for such a project.  Stay tuned!