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Originally published November 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 10, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Change-of-address idea too good to be left to FCC

Throughout e-mail's evolution, it has maintained two distinct differences from the systems it seeks to supplant: Unlike the phone, there...

Special to The Seattle Times

Throughout e-mail's evolution, it has maintained two distinct differences from the systems it seeks to supplant: Unlike the phone, there is no purported master directory of e-mail addresses. And unlike the post office, once you change addresses, messages are not forwarded to a new location.

This could change, if a petition filed before the Federal Communications Commission is granted. As reported in The Associated Press, a freelance editor named Gail Mortenson has requested that e-mail service providers be required to provide a forwarding service, if and when users change from one provider to another. According to the report, a public-comment period ended Oct. 26 and we are now in the middle of another 30-day period for replies.

Service providers AOL, Comcast, Verizon, Google and Yahoo declined to comment, with several companies saying it's the first time they've heard about the issue.

This is one time where I favor Goliath over David. The idea of forwarding e-mail is a good one, and its time has come. But there is no reason for the government to get involved. Instead, one forward-looking company should offer it as a feature. Others will then follow suit. Pretty soon it will be as ubiquitous as the ability to forward messages to another place or set up vacation responders, both features that were once available only to a select few.

Offering this feature would demonstrate a certain generosity and also, to be perfectly honest, a dab of poor business sense. Conventional wisdom maintains that a customer should be kept at all costs and never given an option to get away.

But wouldn't it be cool if a large-scale provider gave customers an option to go elsewhere, while providing the exemplary service that makes them stay put?

While we wait for companies to do the right thing — or the government to intervene — a third party is addressing the problem. Bethany Data has opened a Web site called www.findmynewmail.com,where users register their discontinued addresses and their new ones. People looking for someone can enter the old address on the site, and the mail is forwarded to the current location.

This is an imperfect fix, primarily because only a few thousand people are now signed up. The hope of finding an old acquaintance here has a needle/haystack quality.

But the company's John Hayes is optimistic. "We're working to create an online awareness, where people can Google for find a new e-mail address, and we'll be there one day," he said. "I think that this is a good idea and is something that is worth encouraging. I don't claim that it's a cure for all ills, but it's something to help people."

Hidden feature: Last week, I took Gmail to task for poor inbox management but was unaware of one feature. Users can assign a label to a message, then archive the message — keeping it accessible but out of the inbox. While this works, it is still one step more complicated than it needs to be.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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