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Screenshot of MailTracker

When you send someone an e-mail message, you have no idea whether or not the recipient has received it, or opened it, or spent more than five seconds scanning it. This is a fact of life we've all become accustomed to, one of the basic rules of e-mail, a blessing and a curse, depending on whether you're the person who's trying to track someone down, or the person who's trying to shirk answering.

More modern forms of messaging cheerfully rat out recipients: Facebook and BBM and iMessage notes all announce when they've been seen. But the underpinnings of regular e-mail are as old as the hills, and they don't provide any feedback mechanism for letting the sender know if that message has been eyeballed.

Now, however, a Toronto startup called MailTracker, is offering to deploy a time-honoured tactic to drag regular e-mail into the measurable modern era, letting users track when their messages have been opened, read, and more.

"It's fun, because it's so simple, but so valuable in the right use cases for consumer," says Chris Nguyen, MailTracker's co-founder.

Using MailTracker, which right now exists as an add-on service for the regular iPhone e-mail app, users can track not only whether their e-mails have been opened, but how many times they've been opened, what kind of computer they've been viewed on, where that computer is (probably) located, and, perhaps most usefully, how long readers spent looking at them. And all of this happens without requiring users to use any special e-mail app, beyond the regular Mail app they're used to. (The stats can be viewed in a separate dashboard app.)

To do this, MailTracker simply repurposes the approach that e-mail mass-marketers use to see how well their messages are received when they land in subscribers' inboxes.

"We took the same technology that marketers have been using for the last 20 years, and decided that we'd apply it to the consumer market," says Nguyen.

To see if the e-mails are being opened and read, MailTracker inserts a tiny, transparent image into the e-mail – a single, invisible pixel – whose name is a unique identifier. When the e-mail gets opened, the recipient's computer needs to fetch the tiny image, by following the link back to the server it's stored on. That server, in turn, takes careful notes. If a computer comes looking for an image with a certain name – bingo, it knows the corresponding e-mail has been opened.

MailTracker inserts the image automatically by rerouting all of a customer's outbound e-mail through its own servers, which drop the pixel in. This puts pressure on the company's servers to handle throughput that could grow as the service grows.

"It's not hard to do pixel tracking, but it's hard to scale," says Mr. Nguyen, a serial entrepreneur, now on his third company.

He says MailTracker will be chiefly targeting the enterprise, moving soon from iOS onto Android, and the desktop. The service is free for the first two accounts, and $4.99 a month thereafter. Businesses might stand to pay to see if their e-mails are going where they're supposed to; you yourself can start freely casting an enquiring eye on your contacts today.

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