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The USPS gives birth to an idea

The USPS gives birth to an idea

Many companies these days are finding it hard to get into the Internet business. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and often maddeningly confusing—but it’s also difficult to ignore the prestige of hosting a Web site. Whether the Internet holds the promise of a better future or it’s all just a bunch of hellacious hype, everyone wants a piece of it for himself.

Not to be left out of the fray is the United States Postal Service, a company with its roots in the very low-tech world of paper shuffling. No stranger to having its primary product, mail delivery, made almost obsolete, the Postal Service says it has seen the future of mail, and it is electronic.

Up through the ’50s, the USPS held absolute sway over the industry almost by default. It delivered packages and documents across the country, but in the late ’60s and early ’70s, this began to change. A couple of young companies set out to prove that, while the Postal Service delivered mail for millions, it didn’t necessarily deliver customer satisfaction. Beginning with medium-sized to large packages, companies such as FedEx and UPS began to ferry cargo from location to location overnight for reasonable charges.

The USPS was caught completely off guard by this attack on its core business, and it soon found that businesses were perfectly willing to ship with another carrier if the price was right. Suddenly, the Postal Service found itself scrambling to hold onto its status as the mail carrier of the nation.

By the early ’90s, FedEx and UPS had obtained a substantial share of the overnight delivery market, and the USPS found itself fighting an uphill battle. Determined not to make the same mistake again, the Postal Service began re-examining residential mail delivery, looking for possible threats to that business.

It found a threat in the form of electronic mail—already on the desktops of millions of office workers, college students, and regular Joes. Unlike paper mail (which e-mail users derisively call “snail mail”), this type of mail could arrive at its destination in mere seconds. It could be modified to send huge amounts of information at once, and it worked fairly well. The Postal Service decided it wanted in on this relatively new technology.

Administrators and programmers came up with an idea: They could make e-mail more secure by extending to it the same protection afforded regular mail. The Postal Service’s recently developed plan calls for enhancing the security and reliability of electronic mail traveling on the Internet. Under the plan, businesses and consumers could verify that e-mail has not been tampered with by having a Postal Service-certified tag attached to it.

In effect, an e-mailed letter would carry the same importance as a certified letter. It’s a long-overdue step to ensure security, say Postal Service representatives. “The leap from trading messages to buying and selling goods has been blocked by the fear of security threats,” says Robert Reisner, vice president of strategic planning. “To expand from local area networks and bilateral secure communications to wide use of electronic commerce will require a new generation of security services.”

Here’s how the system would work: An e-mailed message would have a special coded “signature” inserted into the message on the user’s end. It would then travel to a computer owned by the Postal Service, where the message would be verified against a list of postal customers. If the message is real, the computer would stamp it with a time and date and deliver it securely. The legal weight of that “electronic postmark” would be the same as a real one.

The plan already has a few critics, most notably a group of privacy rights activists. They claim the process of sending all your e-mail to one server owned by a government agency is, in fact, less secure. Some claim the potential of such a service to be abused by law enforcement would be too great. Still others say the Postal Service’s plan would be better performed by private companies.

USPS officials, meanwhile, say there’s no better place to test such a risky technology first. “Remember the pilots who returned from World War I and then risked their lives in an even more dangerous duty,” Reisner says, referring to early airmail delivery efforts. “To keep these daring pilots alive, the Postal Service had to create parts of what we know as the weather service today. Navigation aids had to be developed. We are watching many of these same dynamics today. Earlier experience tells us that this is a public and private job.”

One thing is certain: The plan has more than a few kinks in it. For example, the program that decodes and encodes the mail on the user’s end is currently available only in Windows format. Macintosh users would be unable to decode mail from such a service. Also, transmitting e-mail securely can already be done between two users using the proper tools—and those tools quite often are free.

For more information on the new “electronic postmark,” check out the Postal Service Web site at http://www.usps.gov/ .

Bytes

♦ Astounding both critics and market analysts alike, the company everyone wrote off as dead earlier this year appears to have pulled a Lazarus. Apple Computer has posted a completely unexpected $25 million profit—that’s about 20 cents per share—for the last three months of its fiscal year. Early speculation was that the company would show a loss of about 30 cents per share.

The maker of the Macintosh attributes the turnaround to lower manufacturing costs and slashed operating expenses. Some of the turnaround appears to be the result of several hundred layoffs at Apple’s California headquarters.

♦ Have you recently purchased a shiny new 33.6 modem? Are you breaking it in yet? Well, you might end up just chucking it in a few months for one with more zip. Modem manufacturer U.S. Robotics says it has developed a new computer modem that can operate at 56 kilobits per second. That’s higher than any speed obtained before on a standard “copper” phone line, and it’s about the same as high-speed ISDN.

The modem, dubbed the “X2,” will begin field testing in November and will be available to customers beginning in the first quarter of 1997. An upgrade for U.S. Robotics customers who bought 33.6 modems will be available in January. Several other companies, including Lucent Technologies, have announced that they will release modems operating at the same speed early next year.

♦ Not even hackers are above election-year trickery. Callers to an AFL-CIO 800-number, listed in advertisements attacking Republicans, received a different message than one the union intended to send out. “Highly paid union administrators and rich union bosses want you to know that we have Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party in our back pocket,” said the message. The message was replaced with the proper greeting a short time later.

Joel Moses can be reached via e-mail at joel@moses.com.

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