Can't get to the post office before it closes? Tired of waiting in long lines to buy stamps? Fed up with mechanical postage meters that hit bottom or jam just when you need them most? Internet postage may be just what you're looking for--a low-cost, convenient way to buy postage and print your own stamps right off the Web any time you need them.
All it takes is a standard IBM-compatible PC, an ink-jet or laser printer, and a small chunk of software you can download from either of two companies offering this new postage service: E-Stamp (http://www.e-stamp.com) and Stamps.com (http://www.stamps.com).
And yes, it's entirely legal. It's all based on the U.S. Postal Service's development of a two-dimensional bar code, officially called the Information Based Indicium. Instead of the parallel lines seen in supermarket bar codes, this 2-D bar code appears as a large-stamp-sized rectangle full of apparently random marks. In fact, that gibberish contains a sophisticated and forgery-resistant information code that records such items as a postage amount, the ZIP code of where your letter's going and the time the bar code was printed. New Postal Service machines can automatically read these bar codes and route the attached mail in a flash. They're not pretty, but these Internet stamps provide new levels of service.
From the customer's point of view, the emphasis is on convenience and savings. If there's a letter to mail, you just print a "stamp" directly onto the proper envelope or onto a standard adhesive label. Buying postage is just a matter of submitting your credit card data over the Web and having your machine's virtual postage meter instantly topped up with a corresponding amount of postage value.
The savings over traditional postage meters are considerable: as much as 85 percent because you needn't buy proprietary ink cartridges, and service fees are much lower. Stamps.com charges just $10 a month, for instance, if you use no more than $100 of postage.
Not surprisingly, Pitney-Bowes, the top maker of postage meters, is not thrilled with Internet postage, and has filed a lawsuit claiming patent infringement. But E-Stamp and Stamps.com seem unperturbed, and they're forging ahead. Among other things, postal scales that can connect to PCs are in development, as well as special windowed envelopes that will give visual access to postage bar codes that have been printed directly onto letters and invoices. If all this works out, you may never have to--or want to--visit a post office again.
John W. Verity reported and edited for 23 years at Electronic News, Datamation and Business Week. Since 1997, he has been freelancing from his Brooklyn, New York, home.