Running late? Online cards speed the season's greetings

Well, why not? Plenty of Web sites will e-mail a funny cartoon, a sweet drawing, or some silly animation in your name -- some of them free of charge.

Most of them don't actually e-mail the graphic. The only thing that arrives in the recipient's in-box is a text message (not even HTML) announcing that there's a card waiting for them at such-and-such URL. This is much friendlier than forcing your friends to download a large file just to get their e-mail. Besides, with all the talk about e-mail viruses, a self-running animated message just may cause panic.

Of course, everyone knows about the famous sites, such as Hallmark.com, BlueMountain.com, and Yahoo. But here are some others you might find interesting.

Free sites abound

CyberGreetings is a good, basic site, with categories and subcategories of cards for all sorts of occasions. Click down far enough and you'll get thumbnails of the various cards, all properly credited to the original artist. The images tend toward cute cartoons -- including some animated .gifs -- and simple drawings. Once you've picked an image, you complete a simple form, designate the delivery date (which lets you order your Valentines early, for example), and off goes the message. If you have a microphone on your PC, you can record a voice message.

Greetings Depot offers the same type of service with a more diverse art selection. You can choose to send anime-style cartoons, Victorian drawings and photos, and celebrity caricatures. It covers such various occasions as "Quit Smoking" and "Household Chores." The site also boasts a fair number of rather silly animations, far more ambitious than CyberGreetings' animated .gifs. These animations, by the way, arrive in the recipient's e-mail box as attachments, which may scare virus-conscious users. People who run them, however, will find them harmless.

CGreetings is the work of Susan Landor, who also sells a line of printed cards. For the most part, these are simple, sentimental drawings and photos of animals, some with .gif animation. The topic categories probably reflect Landor's own taste more than a thought-out marketing scheme; there's a "For Men" category, for instance, but no "For Women."

Kimon O' Gram doesn't include cartoons, animation, or cards specifically designed for St. Patrick's Day. No, Kimon O' Gram sends people pictures of kimonos. But they're very beautiful pictures of kimonos, bearing such unlikely images as the acropolis, Lady Liberty, or the Great Wall of China. You select a kimono and how to present it. The recipient, as usual, gets a link to the picture and your personalised message.

Pay sites offer alternatives

GreetMe.com charges you 95 US cents to e-mail someone a postcard, and $US1.45 for an animated message. The postcards aren't anything to write home about (although you can choose to send them in the e-mail message itself), but the animation is the most ambitious and cleverest I've seen on this type of site. And it's often interactive, like the Hanukkah jigsaw puzzle that, when completed, comes alive, sings, and mentions the recipient verbally by name. (You must pick the name from a list, but it's extensive enough to include even my obscure first name.) You need Shockwave installed to preview the animations, but your loved ones don't. When they follow the e-mailed link, they get a choice of a Windows, Macintosh, or Shockwave version.

The Internet offers many ways to tell people you're thinking of them. Probably the nicest is to write and e-mail them a personal letter.

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