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Pitney Bowes tests Net postage

The company owns more than four-fifths of the offline market share, but can it catch up on the Net?

Postage giant Pitney Bowes, off to a late start in the Internet postage market, has won approval to begin testing its ClickStamp PC product, which allows users to buy postage over the Net and print envelopes with a digital signature.

Pitney Bowes won approval this week from the U.S. Postal Service to begin testing the online postage process, but two upstart rivals beat it to the punch.

E-Stamp won the same USPS approval in March, and StampMaster got similar permission in August.

"Soon, millions of people who work from home or from small businesses will be able to generate postage from their personal computers," Postmaster General William Henderson said in a statement.

Pitney Bowes apparently isn't worried about its position in the Internet market, where it may have trouble maintaining the 84.3 percent market share it held last year in the physical world.

"We think it's a valuable additional means, but it is not possible for you to meet all your mailing needs using a PC, even for an individual or a small business," Pitney Bowes' John Moody, president of mailing systems, said last month.

Jonathan Rosenzweig, stock analyst with Salomon Smith Barney, estimated Pitney's U.S. postage-rental revenues at $595 million last year out of U.S. revenues of $3.6 million. Globally, it booked $4.1 billion in 1997 revenues.

ClickStamp is part of a new line of Pitney postage products for the small office, home office (SOHO) market, which the firm hopes will broaden its user base of almost 2 million customers. Pitney's small office division and financial services unit now markets a hybrid online mailing service called DirectNET+, the Personal Post Office postage meter, and a family of financial services for business owners called Pitney Works.

Pitney Bowes' research found that about 16 percent of mail content is created on a PC and 12 percent of envelopes are addressed using a printer, so ClickStamp and like products will automatically put a stamp on envelops generated on PCs.

In August, Pitney moved to license its patented PC-based postage technology, and the company said then that it was in discussions with E-Stamp and StampMaster.

E-Stamp uses a hardware device attached to a PC to store stamps purchased online, and Microsoft and AT&T Ventures each bought 10 percent of the company in September 1997.

StampMaster's system uses only software, and it will charge a service fee to users who buy stamps online.