Mailinator is a free service that gives anyone open access to any e-mail address at the mailinator.com domain. (Read the FAQ.) Without a password, you can check the accounts at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com, just by going to the site's home page and typing in the username whose e-mail you want to check. Every account's inbox is open to the public.
Like spamgourmet.com, but simpler, Mailinator is great for when you're asked to provide a valid address for a confirmation e-mail from a Web site that you don't trust with your real address. Give 'em a bogus (but real) Mailinator address, then log into that account on mailinator.com and finish registration.
I love the idea. I think it's brilliant, and I admit to using Mailinator half a dozen times since I learned about it last week. In certain situations -- like the other day, when I needed quick access behind a news site's registration wall and didn't trust it with my real e-mail address -- it makes perfect sense. We live in a world where privacy policies are either too long to read or too short to trust. And a quick look in the inbox of any commonly used Mailinator username -- firstname.lastname@example.org, for instance -- proves that spammers are ready to attack at any instant.
But the honest online-content provider and Web developer in me don't like what's happening here. Requiring a unique, valid e-mail address is a convenient way to limit the use (or misuse) of certain legitimate Web applications. Typical Web bulletin-board software, for instance, allows only one person to register under a single e-mail address.
Yes, I know anybody can sign up for a free e-mail account at Hotmail or Yahoo Mail, but Mailinator removes even that small barrier-to-entry -- as Paul Tyma, the site's developer smartly notes on his Web site. And I'm not so sure many laypersons (read: non-Web-geeks) are familiar with free Web e-mail accounts and the importance of protecting one's e-mail address, anyway. That is, until services like Mailinator become widespread.
The point is, if Mailinator and its ilk get popular, Web developers are going to have to rethink the "one e-mail address per person" mentality. As the ease of accessing random e-mail accounts increases, the accuracy of user-submitted e-mail addresses declines. And that is a bad thing for content providers who have a legitimate need to ensure their customers' e-mail addresses are accurate.
One advantage of Mailinator, from a content-provider's perspective, is the obviousness of the address. If you get an e-mail at the domain mailinator.com, you can be 100 percent sure it's bogus. But, really, how long will it be before more services like this sprout up? And who wants to keep up with the list of domains? Sounds like an arms race to me.
There will always be people who go out of their way to beat the system, just as there will always be people who are honest (or naive, depending on your point of view) about giving away their e-mail address. But for the people in the middle, services like Mailinator accomplish one main thing: They spread the mentality that e-mail addresses are throwaways and most Web sites are out to spam you.
I still haven't decided how I feel about that.