Post office bigwigs must have finally heard one "snail mail" crack too many. Or else they listened up when analysts told them that an upstart technology called e-mail was going to gnaw Pac-Man-style into their $35 billion in first-class mail revenue.
On July 31, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Postal Service had plans-big plans-to assign everyone in the country a free "usps.com" e-mail address, to be used either as an alias or as a new account. The address would begin with a person's initials, followed by her nine-digit zip code and the last two numbers of her street address.
The postal service has refrained from releasing such details as the date, or even the year, that the program would launch. But it has hinted at some rationales for the scheme, including establishing the postal service as the primary communication ferry between the government and the public and helping direct marketers seamlessly shift operations to the electronic world.
The mail corps haven't completely ignored the Internet before now. Three services are already in place. PosteCS sends secure electronic documents. Ebillbay, an electronic payment service similar to the private company Paypal, was launched a few months ago. And then there's Shipping Online, an electronic postage service. Last September, the post office launched another service, allowing customers to send electronic documents to be printed, stuffed into envelopes, and delivered to a mailing list for 41 cents per letter.
Meanwhile, private electronic commerce firms and hundreds of free e-mail providers already have services on the Web identical to those running or in the works at the post office. Rick Merritt, executive director of the Web site postalwatch.com, wonders, "What makes the postal service think they're going to be more attractive than a private concern like Paypal?"