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August 16, 1998

Soon, you'll be able to stamp a
letter right at your computer

By Timothy C. Barmann

The U.S. Postal Service made millions of stamp-lickers happy when it came up with those stamps you don't have to lick.

Now there's another development in postage that promises to make sending letters even easier.

It's called electronic postage. It does away with stamps and postage meter machines altogether. It is being touted as the first major innovation since postage meters were put into use some 78 years ago.

This new technology lets you use your laser or inkjet printer to print the postage right on an envelope as you print the address.

I thought it had to be a scam when I first heard about it. After all, printing postage is almost like printing money.

But it was no scam. In the spring, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., the Postal Service's postmaster general stood next to executives from a Palo Alto, Calif., company to unveil the first letter to be mailed with electronic postage.


``This is the future: postage directly from a personal computer,'' said Marvin Runyon from the Postal Service.

There are about half-dozen companies working on this technology, including E-Stamp Corp., a company that is partially owned by Microsoft, AT&T and Compaq. It is the first to get permission from the Postal Service to test electronic postage.

The other companies include Pitney Bowes, of Stamford, Conn., Neopost of Hayward, Calif., and StampMaster of Westlake Village, Calif.

But it's E-Stamp that's getting all the attention because it has already begun letting up to 500 people test its product.

The testing is underway in the Washington, D.C. area, San Francisco and other parts of Northern California, and will soon move to Tampa, Fla., according to the company.

E-STAMP'S PRODUCT has two components: a software program and a small piece of hardware -- an ``electronic vault'' -- that plugs into your printer port.

E-Stamp says it hasn't finalized pricing, but the software/hardware package will cost under $200. The postage fee would be the same as for regular mail, plus a surcharge, which the company says will be 10 percent or less. For example, a letter that would ordinarly cost 32 cents to mail might cost 35 cents with electronic postage.

The product is expected to be on store shelves at the end of this year or beginning of next year, according to Nicole Eagan, vice president of marketing for E-Stamp. It depends on final approval by the Postal Service, she said.

The company is targeting small office and home-based business markets.

Here's how it works. First you install the software and plug in the security device, which is a 11/2-inch square box that goes between your printer and your computer. Then, you must buy some postage.

You can do so over the Internet with a credit card, by electronic fund transfer, or by mailing in a check to E-Stamp. You download the postage into the electronic vault.

Then you can use the software to print an electronic stamp on an envelope or on a label to be placed on a package.

The software also lets you print the postage directly from Microsoft Word. You can even print the postage on the upper right hand corner of a letter or invoice and mail it in a special envelope that has a window where the stamp normally goes.

The digital postage will work on First-Class, Priority and Express Mail.

As you print each electronic stamp, the software deducts the amount of the postage from the electronic vault.

WHAT IF you make a mistake, or the envelope gets stuck in the printer? Once your printer goes into action, the postage is deducted, even if the printout is not successful. You can mail your misprinted label or envelope to E-Stamp and get credit for it, or you can bring it to a post office for a refund, Eagan said.

The electronic stamp doesn't look anything like a traditional one, and in fact, its not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as, say, an Elvis stamp. It's main feature is a bar code along with printed information such as the town it was mailed from, the date it was mailed and the amount of the postage. There's even a small square space for -- ugh -- advertising.

Counterfeiting is of course a major concern, and Eagan said there are safeguards to prevent such fraud. For example, you can't simply copy and reuse an electronic stamp, she said.

That's because each one is unique. The barcode contains the recipient's Zip code, the time and date it was created, and a digital signature.

The Postal Service has scanners that can read these stamps, and this equipment can detect a duplicate stamp, Eagan said.

Eagan said the little electronic vault would be of little use to someone other than the original owner if it was stolen since the device interacts with E-Stamp's computers and everything must match up correctly for it to work, she said.

The Postal Service asks that letters and packages with electronic postage be put in mail boxes for metered mail, or given to a letter carrier, Eagan said.

Next year, E-Stamp plans to offer electronic postage over the World Wide Web. That way, you won't need any special software except a Web browser. You'll also be able to use any computer, instead of just those running Microsoft Windows software, a requirement for the first release of its product. You won't need any additional hardware either.

The company is also looking to work with other software developers, such as Intuit, the maker of Quicken, the widely popular personal-finance software. E-Stamp would like to give Quicken users the ability to print the postage right on checks when they pay their bills.

So is E-Stamp developing this product for a dying form of communication? Sure E-mail has become commonplace and has even replaced traditional mail in some cases. But Eagan said the company is confident there is a thriving market for electronic postage. The U.S. Postal Service took in $58 billion last year and delivered about 190 billion letters and packages, she said.

That's a lot of stamps, and a lot of licking. When electronic postage hits the market in the next few months, it will save lots of trips to the post office to buy stamps.

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Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.