The Postal Service is making available postage that customers can buy on the Internet and print on home computers.
Now it's postage over the Internet. The U.S. Postal Service on Monday launched PC Postage, a stamp that can be printed through personal computers.
Whether it's used by the average consumer mailing holiday cards or wedding invitations or a business sending correspondence, the system eventually could change the way many people put postage on their envelopes.
Consumers would go online to one of the companies offering PC Postage. With an ordinary laser or inkjet printer, a bar code would be printed on each envelope to indicate mail processing information and postage payment. For packages, consumers would enter the weight, buy the appropriate amount of postage and print it on labels to be put on the packages.
"With PC Postage you can purchase and print postage 24 hours a day, seven days a week from the convenience of your home or office," said Pam Gibert, Postal Service vice president of retail.
"This is postage made easy," she said. "There's no licking, no sticking. Just clicking."
Wellington Wilson, a San Francisco businessman whose Wellington E-Group is creating an online shopping mall, provided his own testimonial. "This operation is so slick, so simple, so easy," said Wilson, who has been using the Stamps.com product as part of a pilot program since January.
The new service is being marketed to small businesses and home office users, Gibert said. International Data Corp., which studies postal business, estimates the country has 35-million small businesses and 8-million home offices.
On Monday, E-Stamp Corp. of San Mateo, Calif., and Stamps.com of Santa Monica, Calif., began registering customers for a limited release of the Internet postage next month. Two other companies _ Neopost of Hayward, Calif., and Pitney Bowes of Stamford, Conn. _ are market-testing their products.
E-Stamp and Stamps.com will offer their services in different formats.
For $50, E-Stamp customers can purchase a module, an "electronic vault," that is plugged into a computer's printer port. After the hookup, the consumer sets up an account and downloads the postage, which is stored in the vault.
E-Stamp will add a 10 percent "convenience" fee to the cost of postage to pay for the service, said Nicole Eagan, a spokeswoman for E-Stamp. The company will charge no other fees.
With Stamps.com consumers won't have to install any additional hardware. Instead, they will need to access the company's Web site, download free software and open a print account. However, customers will have to go to the company's Web site each time they need postage.
Consumers also will pay handling fees to Stamps.com _ they will range from $1.99 to $19.99 a month depending on usage rates _ along with payment for the postage.
Consumers can pay for either service by credit card, debit card or direct deductions from a checking account. Neither company has a Macintosh-compatible product available yet. The PC postage cannot be used internationally; it will be valid only in the United States for domestic first-class, priority and express mail and parcels.
Marla McCormick, corporate administration director for Digital Access Corp., a small business with 12 employees, market-tested E-Stamp's PC Postage product in April 1998.
"Before, I'd have to send my receptionist to the post office once a week and I'd be left answering the phones," McCormick recalls. "Now, no one ever has to leave the office."
During the three years of working on PC Postage, each company has had to meet requirements to ensure the security of the system, Gibert said.
But the traditional stamp isn't headed for extinction, Gibert said.
"We don't see that stamps are going away," she said. "It's simply another choice."
_ Information from the Associated Press and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.