If it's really important, don't send it by e-mail. I follow that rule and I suspect millions of other people do, too.
There are just too many uncertainties. The global cooperative called the Internet is more than capable of misdirecting or losing messages. Then there are those Internet service providers that go down at strategic times and those people who only check their e-mail once a month.
The U.S. Postal Service long ago addressed the lick-and-seal variety of this anxiety with the return receipt, a slip of paper that comes back to you to confirm your letter got where it was going. Now, as proof that the electronic world mimics the real one as often as it parts ways with it, come World Wide Web services that offer this same of kind of peace of mind in e-mail.
Surely, there's a market for this. According to New York market research firm Jupiter Communications, by year's end there will be about 177 million e-mail messages dispatched every day in the United States.
And according to a survey by the firm of 2,000 households in March, 44 percent of people said they would like to see a return receipt function on their e-mail. (The only wish-list items ranking higher were the ability to access e-mail from anywhere and to screen out junk e-mail).
None of the services can guarantee that your message gets through, however. They use the same unreliable Internet routers and wires that everyone else does. Yet they function as monitors, keeping an eye on your particular message and alerting you to its fate.
Part of what these services are about is a lack of technical standards. Some e-mail programs, the Lotus Notes on my computer at work, for example, have return receipt functions. The problem is that they generally only work if the person getting the mail is in your organization or using the same software as you are.
These services essentially open up return receipt to anyone with e-mail and Web access.
An Atlanta-based operation, certifiedemail.com, is the latest entrant, having formally opened for business this month. It traces its origins to early 1997, when founder Court Coursey wanted to e-mail a London client of another business he had started but didn't have a way to be sure the person got it. So he created a service that pulls that off.
Here's how it works: You go to the Web site at www.certifiedemail.com, and set up an account -- rights to send and receive run $3.95 a month for 20 messages. Then you click on "send message" and fill out your Internet address and the recipient's. The site assigns an ID number to the message you're going to send and tells you what it is.
If you use your Web browser for e-mail, you click on the screen and a message form will come up addressed to the certifiedemail.com server, with the ID number in the subject line. You type in or attach your message. If you don't use your Web browser for e-mail, you have to address and put the number in the subject line by hand.
Off the message goes to the certifiedemail. Its server, in turn, sends out an e-mail alert to your recipient saying there's a message waiting for you under such and such code number, come pick it up.
The recipient must also register for the service, but a "receive-only" account is free. At the Web site, the recipient enters a code and password and sees the message. When that's done, the system sends an e-mail message back to you saying it has been read.
I tried it a few times and found that because of multiple steps (I wasn't using a browser e-mail), I would use it only for material I really wanted to get through. But, by golly, those confirmation messages were pretty cool -- if you don't hear back after getting one, you have a pretty good idea the other person is ignoring you.
The other major services providing this service are Tumbleweed Software Corp. of Redwood City, Calif. (www.tumbleweed.com ), which has backing from major venture capital groups; and NetDox Inc. (www.netdox.com ), a division of accounting and consulting giant Deloitte & Touche. Both have marketing alliances with United Parcel Service.
NetDox requires more preparation upfront, but seems more like ordinary e-mail. You download special e-mail software, as does the message recipient. You prepare the message and hit the send button. It goes to the service's hub for integrity checks, then straight on to the e-mail of the receiving party -- there's no going out to the Web to fetch a message.
It's more expensive than certifiedemail.com, starting at about $7 a message and declining to about $4 with volume. But it has end-to-end security. The software that you download encrypts your message as it goes out; it's unscrambled by the recipient's computer at the other end.
In the certifiedemail.com system, material travels in the clear from your computer to the hub server (promotional material, however, declares that "only the Pentagon can boast a more-secure environment"). At the server, messages are encrypted and virus-checked, and stay scrambled as they travel to the recipient across the Web. The service is negotiating for technology that would encrypt the first leg as well.
Coursey says certifiedemail.com has about 10,000 users so far -- it has been in beta testing for several months -- and is targeting medical professionals, who need reliable ways to send patient information around. Other occupational groups include health-care professionals and lawyers.
What all these services lack so far is courtroom respectability. That's a lot of the allure of the post office's return receipts -- people pay for them so they can wave them before a judge if a deadbeat tenant claims that he just never got those letters asking for the rent.
Coursey says this status will come. United Parcel Service and FedEx didn't used to have it. After litigation on the issue, they do.
Look for a real surge in interest once that happens.