By Bill McAllister
Dubbed "mouse mail" by one stamp expert, the high-tech procedure could revolutionize the way millions of small businesses handle their letters, U.S. Postal Service officials said. "Postage without licking or sticking -- just clicking," Runyon said.
Officials said it was the first major change in U.S. postage since the introduction of postage meters more than 75 years ago.
E-Stamp Corp., a small, privately owned California computer company, won the honor of being the first to test the system. The Palo Alto firm, which is financially backed by Microsoft Corp. and AT&T Corp., said it will immediately begin using the computer-generated stamps at more than 500 small businesses in the Washington area.
If the tests are successful, E-Stamp President and Chief Executive Sunir Kapoor said the company would begin selling personal computer postage kits for less than $199 within months. By connecting to a Web site, individuals will be able to purchase postage from the Postal Service and print envelopes complete with addresses, delivery bar codes and computer-generated 32-cent stamps. In addition to the software, E-Stamp will charge a small service fee for the postage.
Postal officials call the system Information Based Indicia and say the bar codes that comprise the computer-generated stamp are filled with information that makes each envelope unique. It also should make counterfeiting more difficult than with meters.
Postal officials said their tests of the system will last at least six months, longer than Kapoor predicted. But they were highly enthusiastic about the system's prospects during an unveiling at the National Postal Museum. "We believe that computer-generated postage has high potential. . . . This is the future," Runyon proclaimed.
"There are several others coming close behind," said Pam Gibert, vice president of retail operations for the Postal Service. Noticeably absent from the system's debut was Pitney Bowes Inc., the Connecticut company that has had a near monopoly on the postage meter business for decades. Pitney has said it hopes to introduce a similar computer-based system.
Both postal and E-Stamp officials agree that the target for the new postage is the booming small business and home office market. Most such businesses are too small to be bothered by the expense of renting a postage meter, Kapoor said. But almost 70 percent of those firms have personal computers and officials said many will like the possibility of avoiding trips to the post office to buy stamps.
Kapoor believes the new postage will become a computer necessity for small businesses, like a computer's spelling program. For postal officials, E-Stamp's system trims demand for stamps and produces envelopes that will come with correct Zip codes and be easy to sort.
For Runyon, who is scheduled to leave the agency in seven weeks, the announcement allows him to leave a high-tech legacy for an agency that has had a history of balking at new technology. It was offered -- and refused -- a chance to help market the telegraph and telephone. Nearly two decades ago, it tried to offer a fax program but the effort floundered.
"Some may call this mouse mail, but this is the postal service of the future," said James Bruns, director of the National Postal Museum. Bruns, whose museum is filled with almost 16 million different stamps, acknowledged the new system probably will cut demand for stamps. But then with fewer stamps in circulation, those will be more collectible, he said.
"We are always going to have stamps," Gibert said confidently. "Not everyone has access to a computer and the Internet."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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