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Postal Service OKs e-stamps

The Postal Service approves a beta test of technology that will allow users to download postage from the Net and print it directly onto envelopes.

    The Postal Service cemented its place in the Internet age today with the unveiling of the first electronic stamps.

    After two years of development, Silicon Valley company E-Stamp is the first to make it through the Post Office's arduous screening process. The USPS has approved E-Stamp's electronic stamps for beta testing. Starting Monday, users in the Washington area will be able to download postage from the Net and print it directly onto envelopes using software, a small piece of hardware, and a standard printer.

    Postmaster General Marvin Runyon today publicly received the first electronic stamp, officially called Information Based Indicia (IBI), produced by E-Stamp.

    The launch of the stamps, expected for several months, represents the first new form of postage approved in 78 years. In 1920, the Postal Service approved postage meters, still commonly used by businesses.

    E-Stamp is hoping that once it gets full approval for the stamps, it will be able to convince users to trade in their clunky metering machines for some shrink-wrapped software and a button-sized piece of hardware. E-Stamp has not yet priced the software and hardware, but it will be competitive with other software aimed at the small-business market, said E-Stamp spokeswoman Leslie Thomas.

    E-Stamp will use the Net to deliver the stamps to end users.

    Other companies also are in line for beta-test approval from the Postal Service and could choose their own method of delivery.

    But for now, the market belongs solely to E-Stamp, in which Microsoft and AT&T each bought a 10 percent stake in September, according to E-Stamp, a privately held company.

    "We are very anxious to be creating revenue," Thomas said. "We've gone through a long development stage. We're ready to get going."

    The approval process required multiple levels of approval and testing, because, essentially, E-Stamp has been given the go-ahead to print currency.

    "Postage is the currency to mail," Thomas said. "That's why there are such stringent requirements."

    Test users will pay for the electronic stamps online, then download them from a secure Net site. The information to create the stamps will be stored in the hardware, E-Stamp's Security Device. The device is the diameter of one dime and the thickness of three. It is connected to the PC's printer port. The SmartStamp is printed on the envelope at the same time as the address.

    The stamps contain two-dimensional, printable bar codes with encrypted information. All have unique identifications.

    The stamp cannot be printed on an envelope without an address. But it can be printed on labels.

    After the Washington test, trials will take place in the San Francisco Bay Area and Tampa, Florida. All testing areas were determined by the Postal Service, Thomas said.