| stories | digital stamps

June 2000

Lick Stamps No More
You've heard about the new e-stamp services. So which one is the best?

By Sreenath Sreenivasan

Sreenivasan's wrote about digital cash for Time Digital.

I NEVER GAVE postage stamps much thought. Aside from an abandoned childhood philately collection, my main relationship with stamps was scrambling for one to stick on a late bill payment. E-mail, Web greeting cards and online banking had separated me from the little guys, for the most part.

We became reacquainted recently after I discovered eBay and other online auctions. Suddenly I needed plenty of stamps: stamps to send payments for the items I was adding to my precious collections and for stuff I was sending to winners of auctions I held to get rid of it all. I found myself at the post office regularly and learned that its long lines aren't restricted to April 15 and December. Happily, while the Net may have caused my recent stamp crisis, it also helped solve it in the form of what the U.S. Postal Service refers to as "PC postage." After test driving a couple of Internet stamp products available to consumers, I've decided this is the greatest innovation in mail since self-adhesive stamps.

The three currently on the market are, E-Stamp and Simply Postage. For a few cents more per stamp, you can stay home and get all the postage you need. Each has its quirks, but they all work generally like this: once you've added postage via the Web to your PC, you can print postage on envelopes, packages, mailing tubes and anything else that needs sending. Note to the fashion conscious: these are not American flag or LOVE stamps but are special postage bar codes — boring to look at, yes, but functional.

While both and E-stamp are available only to Windows users and allow you to use any printer to create your bar-code stamps, they take slightly different approaches. I liked best of the three because it was the easiest to set up and had the best support (online, in real time). It relies completely on software; you pay for and use postage stored on its servers. By contrast, E-Stamp requires a small "electronic vault," a matchbox-size attachment that easily connects to your serial port to download postage information. An advantage is that you don't need to be online to print stamps. A disadvantage? You'll need to have the hardware shipped to you before you can use E-stamp.

If you're a Mac user, your only choice is Simply Postage, from Neopost, a European leader in postage meters. Its service, which is also available to PC users, requires that you get a special printer (about the size of a PC speaker) to make the stamps. With Simply Postage you don't need to be online to print, but you do need to be connected to your computer to refuel your postage meter. In fact, you can print stamps only with the special printer; for mailing labels, you need your own printer.

There are several drawbacks to PC postage. Both and E-stamp, for security reasons, require you to verify the addresses of recipients (via the Web for and via CD-ROM for E-Stamp). Worse, anything you print must be mailed within 24 hours or it may be returned. And be sure to keep some spare printer cartridges handy. I've run out of ink at least twice, leaving me where I began — frantically searching for a 33 stamp to stick on an overdue payment. Another drawback is that so far, only Simply Postage allows you to send items internationally. And finally, before you start sending e-postage, you'll need to apply for a postal license, which you can get online.

On the upside, you'll never run out of stamps. And if you have a scale, you can print just the amount of stamps required, making sure you'll never again have to use two 33[cent] stamps on a heavier envelope instead of the 44[cents] in postage that you really need.

Sreenath Sreenivasan is a professor at Columbia University's Journalism School


STAMPS.COM **** (888-435-0055) No start-up fees. You pay $1.99 to $19.99 a month. No additional hardware, though you need to be online to print.

E-STAMP *** (888-272-6526) Requires a $49.99 starter kit that includes $50 free postage; also, $4.99 minimum postage to start. You'll receive an "electronic vault" that plugs into your PC and tracks postage.

SIMPLY POSTAGE *** (877-397-8267) Set-up fee is $49.95 plus $9.95 a month; includes $50 free postage. Uses a dedicated label printer; can't print envelopes. Works fine for PCs; is the Mac user's only choice.

From the print edition of TIME Digital.

-30- | stories | digital stamps