From the January 2001 issue of Startups

Through rain, sleet, snow or hail, your PC and printer will always get the mail through-but only if you're wired into an electronic postaging system that allows users to print certified postage directly onto envelopes or mailing labels. With your trusty postage scale by your side, you may never have to wait in that long post-office line again.

The technology to print stamps on your home or office printer is still being fine-tuned to prevent the production of counterfeit stamps. The "stamp" currently available through online vendors is actually a complex barcode printout called Indicia that is accepted by the post office. The electronic postage market won't support too many players, but there are four main contenders, each with a slightly different twist:

1.E-Stamp is one of the most popular, but it also requires the greatest financial investment and might be better suited to those with high volumes of outgoing mail. Users buy the E-Stamp software package for $50, which includes the postage printing software (as well as a promotional offer available at press time for $50 in free postage). Additional fees rack up to 10 percent of every postal purchase, or a minimum of $4.99 per transaction (making it fiscally unwise to buy less than $50 worth of postage at a time). After that, users enjoy the smooth sailing of printing postage onto an envelope or mailing label. What happens if you make a mistake? According to E-Stamp's responsive customer serv-ice help center, simply call the company, and they'll refund your money.

Kudos to E-Stamp for designing its product to print postage without needing to be online, but you might be disappointed to learn its software is not available for download from the Web site-you have to wait for it to arrive in the mail.

2. The aptly named Stamps.com doesn't exactly make its mark. The site doesn't inspire confidence, as it's badly written and poorly organized, among other flaws.

Stamps.com does allow users to download the postage software immediately, however. There are two pricing plans that cater more to home workers and small businesses and are a lot more affordable than E-Stamp.com. Users pay either a 10 percent monthly user's fee ($1.99 minimum) on top of the costs of the postage, or a monthly flat fee of $16, which includes postage costs and a free postage scale. However, for some strange reason, current users of Stamps.com who switch to the flat-rate plan do not qualify for free postage. Go figure.

3.Neopost's Simply Packages has a suite of electronic postage options in the works, but its flagship product, the PROmail peripheral, is a great option for anyone needing postage on the road or without a printer. Neopost has developed an all-in-one hardware device that plugs in to your computer's USB port. Not only does the device download postage from your pay account, but it also serves as a scale and prints the right amount of postage onto a sticky label for you to affix. Special tracking software keeps a log of how much postage you've printed, when the label was printed and to whom the packages were sent.

One unique feature with this peripheral is that once it's unplugged from your computer, any preset stamp amounts can be printed remotely and repeatedly. For $50, users get the peripheral (and $25 in free postage at press time). Fees are $15 a month for unlimited postage, plus the cost of additional postage labels (about $18 for four rolls of 100) for the machine.

4. The first name in traditional postage metering is also the latest to go electronic. PitneyWorks, the small-business division of Pitney Bowes, has jumped on the bandwagon and introduced its own online mailing system called ClickStamp. Users download the software or order the CD-ROM for free. They pay for their own postage and spend $1.49 a month to access the service.

ClickStamp is the cheapest option, but it had some clumsy side effects: Customer service didn't have answers to some very simple questions such as "How much does it cost to use your service?" And should you make a mistake, such as print your envelope upside down, redemption can only be made by filling out a form and, get this, mailing it in.


Karen Solomon (ksolomon@dnai.com) is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Industry Standard and Wired News.