Small businesses are getting a big break with the arrival of PC Postage, a new service from the U.S. Postal Service that turns Internet-connected Windows personal computers into high-tech postal meters.
But the security restrictions on PC Postage make the system too unwieldy to benefit typical consumers -- those of us who run out of stamps at 9 p.m. on Sunday while paying the monthly bills.
The post office approved PC Postage offerings last month from two companies: E-Stamp Corp. of San Mateo, Calif., which is now online, and Stamps.com Inc. of Santa Monica, Calif., which goes live Sept. 27.
I spent a week trying the two services, both of which deliver convenience for business or home-office users who send a high volume of mail, but not enough to make a standard postal meter worthwhile.
To address the Postal Service's obsession with security, both companies have been forced to put obstacles in the path of customers. Users also pay a 10 percent premium to buy postage online, although the companies say that's a bargain compared with $20 or more a month for a postage meter.
I'm hoping the Postal Service will approve future programs that make PC Postage more appealing to consumers and less burdensome for companies such as E-Stamp and Stamps.com to resell.
Here is how PC Postage works.
E-Stamp (888-437-8267 or www.e-stamp.com) sells a $49 start-up kit, available directly from the company. Customers get $25 worth of postage as part of the deal.
Inside the E-Stamp box are two CD-ROMs and an "electronic vault," a black plastic plug that connects to your computer's parallel port. The printer cable attaches to the back of the plug. The tamper-proof vault keeps track of how much postage you've purchased and used.
You start by installing the E-Stamp program. Then you have to apply for a U.S. Postal Service meter license, which requires connecting to the Internet. The Postal Service usually won't issue the license until the next business day.
For now, the only way to pay for PC Postage is to allow the Postal Service to make direct withdrawals from your checking account. Payment by credit card is expected soon.
Once the license is approved, it takes only a few minutes to complete the setup.
The E-Stamp program lets you enter full information for mailings, including return address and outgoing address. The final product can be printed on envelopes, regular letter-sized paper that's folded into a window envelope, or adhesive labels. Any inkjet or laser printer will produce the high-security bar code that takes the place of a conventional postage stamp.
To print with E-Stamp, you must insert the second CD-ROM, which contains nine-digit ZIP code data for the entire country. This makes sure your mail is properly addressed. E-Stamp sends a new disc every six months.
When you've used up the first $25 in postage, you connect to the Internet and click through a few simple steps to refill your electronic vault. E-Stamp adds a 10 percent service fee, with a minimum fee of $4.99 on all orders and a maximum fee of $24.99. In other words, you'll pay more than 10 percent if you order a refill under $50 and less than 10 percent if you order more than $250.
Stamps.com (888-434-0055 or www.stamps.com) works without an electronic vault or CD-ROMs, but requires a monthly subscription fee.
Sign-up begins with downloading a 3-megabyte program file from the Stamps.com Web site. It works in much the same way as E-Stamp -- again, you have to wait for Postal Service approval.
The big difference is that Stamps.com requires that you be connected to the Internet to print postage -- for security reasons, the information on how much postage you've purchased and the instructions for printing digital postage are stored on Stamps.com's computers.
Stamps.com has two monthly plans. The Business Service Plan charges a minimum $3.99 a month, regardless of use, and a maximum of $19.99. You pay a 10 percent premium for online postage purchases up to $200; beyond that, there's no fee. The Personal Service Plan is $1.99 per month for up to $25 in postage, with a 15 percent fee on all purchases above $25.
Subscribers can also make a one-time payment of $19.99 for 12 months of the Personal Service Plan.
Both programs were easy to set up, although E-Stamp needs a more complete instruction manual. I tried a pre-release version of Stamps.com's software; the company plans to make the final commercial version available to 10,000 customers this month. You can go to the company's Web site to get onto a waiting list.
Using my Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 5MP printer, I turned out a dozen professional-looking envelopes with both programs and mailed them to myself and friends. All arrived promptly.
Small-business owners can benefit from either system. First, they would never have to line up at the post office for stamps. Second, with the addition of an inexpensive postal scale, they can save money by always printing the precise amount of postage required for packages and bulky envelopes.
Finally, they can automate routine jobs such as customer billing. Both E-stamp and Stamps.com work with Microsoft Word and organizer programs such as Microsoft Outlook to print envelopes with the address and postage in a single step.
E-Stamp also works with Intuit Inc.'s QuickBooks accounting software.
What's not to like?
For one thing, the process is too cumbersome for sending one or two pieces of mail. It's still easier to address an envelope by hand and stick on a stamp.
What's more, E-Stamp and Stamps.com are inconvenient in different ways. I don't like attaching a plug to the back of my computer and inserting a CD-ROM each time, as E-Stamp requires. Nor do I want to connect to the Net each time I need to print envelopes, as with Stamps.com.
A mellower Postal Service might even take the final step: allowing consumers to print their own stamps.
As PC Postage works today, you must enter the destination address before printing the postage and mail the envelope or package within 24 hours, as with postage meters. So, you can't keep a sheet of computer-generated 33-cent stamps in a desk drawer for whenever you need them.
To me, Stamps.com and E-stamp aren't worth considering unless you have a postage bill of $30 a month or more. And bigger businesses, say with a postage bill exceeding $1,000, will be better served by meters. But those within the $30 to $1,000 range could make their lives a little simpler with PC Postage.
Pub Date: 09/20/99