USPS unveils first online postage software, more to come

The U.S. Postal Service last week demonstrated the first approved Internet-based product that allows users to print postage from their PCs.

A small group of users in the Washington, D.C., area will begin to test E-Stamp Corp.'s E-Stamp Internet Postage software, which will allow the group to log onto a secure E-Stamp server, order and pay for postage, download the postage and print it directly onto an envelope.

For the process to work, users need a PC, a printer, the E-Stamp software, an Internet connection and an "electronic repository," which is provided by E-Stamp, to store the postage securely. Users can pay for postage using a credit card, electronic funds transfer or pre-paid check.

"It's postage without licking or sticking, just clicking," said Marvin Runyon, postmaster general at USPS. "Computer-generated postage is on the horizon. Today we [begin] the first step in the field test." PC-generated postage is the first new form of postage introduced by USPS in more than 78 years.

The E-Stamp software prints a SmartStamp on an envelope. The stamp includes a 2-D bar code, called an information-based indicia, which contains the postage, a date stamp, destination and tracking information and a digital signature, which makes the indicia difficult to counterfeit. The company wants to launch the product later this year.

Eventually about 500 users in different locations will test the E-Stamp product. Meanwhile, other companies are developing software to be tested, but USPS declined to name those companies until the software is approved by the agency.

USPS' role in the program is to establish standards and ensure they are followed by vendors providing the software. Ultimately, the agency's goal, Runyon said, is to create satisfied customers and "timely, consistent and affordable service." PC-based postage is the next step in providing better service, he added.

Although vendors could market their products to anyone once they have the USPS seal of approval, initially it is the small office/home office, or SoHo, users who will be most likely to use the service. "The small office/home office market is one of the fastest-growing sectors in our economy," Runyon said, adding that "they have been looking to buy postage over the Internet."

Angela Costa, director of marketing at the Home Office Association of America, said responses from a survey taken last year "showed that [SoHo users] want" electronic postage. Of those surveyed, 98 percent indicated they would likely use commercial software products that would enable postage printing directly from their computers.

Sunir Kapoor, president and chief executive officer of E-Stamp, said the SoHo market is a perfect candidate for the product. There are more than 35 million home offices and 7 million small offices, and they are big consumers of technology, he said. The average SoHo customer spends $600 to $1,200 a year on postage.

Kapoor said E-Stamp would eventually want to incorporate the E-Stamp Internet Postage software into commercial software applications such as Microsoft Corp.'s Word. He expects that online postage will be as ubiquitous "as the telephone and as hassle-free as sending an e-mail."

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