CHECK INBOX: YOU'VE GOT MAIL - FROM SANTA CLAUS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Santa showed up with the click of a mouse.

Old St. Nick - the pudgy, wrinkled fellow that kids write letters to and visit at the mall during holiday season - is steadily being replaced by Cyber Santa Claus. Instead of waiting for kids to see him in person, Santa chats online. He texts. He tweets. He e-mails. He sends cell-phone pictures and makes videos.

Santa's transformation is being ushered in by companies that seek to keep up with the Internet's growing influence, particularly with children. They've made St. Nick accessible, instantaneous and omnipresent.

"The huge difference is that kids can have the experience at home," said Alexandre Berard, CEO of a Canadian-based Web video company that launched the Portable North Pole, a free service allowing parents to create a personalized video message from Santa to their children.

Portable North Pole users answer an online questionnaire about their child and can also include a photograph. The information is used to create a personal video, with a map showing the path that Santa and his reindeer take as they travel from the North Pole to the child's home. Santa also mentions the child's name and talks about what the child wants for Christmas.

"Santa shows where you live, mentions your child's age, the color of his hair, the good things he's done and the bad things he's done," said B?rard, who said that Ugroup Media launched PNP in the United States on Nov. 30 after serving 1.5 million users in Canada during its launch last year.

The PNP is among many companies with a virtual Santa.

There's also ChatWithSanta.com, a live Webcast site that allows children to listen to Santa stories, talk and play games with him.

The Web site was launched five years ago by Canada-based INSINC; it began as an in-house project for employees' children. But word spread, and it became a service offering a daily pass to chat with Santa and watch his North Pole video for $2.95. A full-season pass (through Dec. 23) costs $9.95.

This year's site, launched two weeks ago, receives about 600 hits a day. And senior account executive Mark Winder says that this year the site is handy for parents reluctant to take their children to the mall to see Santa because of concerns about swine flu.

"It's a timely way to give parents a way around from saying, 'Oh, my gosh, should I take my kids to a place that's a hot bed for colds and flu?' " Winder added.

TextSanta.net allows children to receive three personalized text messages from Santa once they're registered by an adult. The messages cost $5.49, and parents can choose the date and time messages are sent.

The service was created by Anchor Mobile, a Missouri-based SMS gateway provider. It also plans to launch PicSanta.net, a service allowing parents to take a photo of their fireplace and send it to Anchor, which would have a live Santa take a photo of himself in front of the fireplace image with a mobile phone camera.

"You then upload it from a site and send it to your child as proof positive that Santa was at your house," said Anchor CEO T.J. Kirgin. He says such Web-based products are more environmentally friendly than the old practice of writing letters to Santa.

"Texting Santa saves paper," said Kirgin. "At our company, we jokingly say that [overusing paper] is why there are no trees at the North Pole."

Santa also has a presence on social-networking sites. On Facebook, a site called "I Believe In Santa Claus" boasts 228,000 members.

Then there's SantaMessage2U, an iPhone application that allows parents to record a personalized message in their voice, convert it into the baritone voice of Santa, and send it to their kids.

The Santa app was created by Alissa Owen, a stay-at-home mom from Sandy, Utah, who saw it as a way for parents to have fun communicating with their children during the holiday season. She spent about $2,500 creating the app with the help of a London-based Web developer.

The app sells for $1.99. Owen, who receives 70 percent of sales revenue, said she has sold about 800 since launching the product on Dec. 1.

The mother of four said the device connects with Web-savvy kids in a way that traditional Santas can't. She added that some parents - herself included - use it as a deterrent for Christmas gift requests that are out of the question.

When her boys told her that they wanted a puppy for Christmas, she sent a message in Santa's voice reminding them that the family agreed it wouldn't get any pets until her youngest son - 1-year-old Henry - was potty-trained.

"My neighbor's son, a third-grader, said that he didn't believe in Santa anymore," said Owen. "And his parents sent him a Santa message that said that if he didn't exist, 'how would Santa know that you hide your dirty clothes in your closet?' "

Sites such as TextSanta.com say they take steps to protect a child's privacy information. Its Web site says a child's data is protected by data encryption and used only for the one-way contact from Santa as purchased and approved by parents. Information is never passed on, sold or rented to a third party, the site says.

Such concerns about child safety are not unfounded, says Parry Aftab, a lawyer and expert on Internet safety.

This time of year, parents are eager to try new and unusual gift ideas for their children, she said. "They let their guards down" when they should make sure that such products are safe.

For Web-based products, she suggested that parents download the free McAfee tool SiteAdvisor and test the site for spyware, malware and spam. She said the sites should adhere to privacy policies and contain secured fields. "Look for a seal. That tells you that professionals that do this for a living have looked at it and made sure it's up to the best-practice standards."

Some organizations have been tracking Santa's treks from the North Pole for decades. Among the most popular is one created by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the U.S.-Canadian military organization responsible for the nations' aerospace and maritime warning system.

NORAD began tracking Santa in 1955, back when it was known as the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). A department store that claimed to know Santa's whereabouts petitioned kids to call, but incorrectly listed the defense command's number. The organization decided to field the calls and the process morphed into a 24-hour tracking of Santa, using state-of-the-art monitoring equipment (including, recently, Google Maps). Santa leaves the North Pole at 6 a.m. Christmas Eve and travels to six continents.

NORAD Tracks Santa employed Internet technology in 1998. It added Twitter last year and this year added YouTube, Flickr and Facebook.

NORAD public affairs officer Lt. Desmond James said that two years ago (the most recent data available) the site noradsanta.org drew 10 million followers, prompting 140,000 e-mails and 94,000 phone calls.

Christine Joyce of Severna Park said she and her two sons (ages 14 and 11) have been tracking Santa on NORAD for three years.

"NORAD is keeping my 11-year-old on his toes," said Joyce. "He's tinkering, like, 'I know [Santa] is not for real, but how come they have this computer thing going on and I can track him?' "

"It helps to extend the belief for longer," said Kathie Hamlett of Severna Park.

Dr. Douglas Kramer, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, pondered the effect of giving Santa - a character that children ultimately discover is not real - a greater presence in the home.

"Maybe it won't have any effect at all," he said. "Each family has its own way of talking about Santa Claus. Some leave cookies out for Santa and some send letters to the North Pole. So if a kid gets a picture of Santa at the fireplace, well, kids are living between fantasy and reality, so they will interpret that in terms of where they are developmentally."

But he added, "The more you tinker with that childhood, the more, in a sense, it's about the parents."

Virtual Santa has undoubtedly added a new twist to the holiday season. Some makers of products that feature St. Nick say, why stop there?

Said Owen, "I'm thinking about doing an app for the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny."

Virtual Santa

Here are some online ways to interact with Santa Claus:

* ChatWithSanta:: chatwithsanta.com.

* TextSanta:: textsanta.net/

* Portable North Pole:: ugroupmedia.com/index.php.en

* SantaMessage2U:: owenboys.blogspot.com

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