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UPS to deliver on Internet time

In a move to push ahead of rival FedEx, UPS is testing a secure document delivery service over the Net.

United Parcel Service is testing a secure document delivery service over the Internet, a move to push ahead of rival Federal Express by embracing the Net's ability to send data almost immediately.

With an eye toward a commercial launch as early as this fall, UPS employees are already using the ePackage service from NetDox, a spin-off of Big Six accounting and consulting firm Deloitte & Touche.

"We are looking at [the Internet] as one step better and faster than same-day delivery," UPS spokeswoman Joan Schnorbus said.

NetDox's service will deliver electronic documents anywhere in the world via the Internet, using 128-bit encryption approved by the Commerce Department. By using "digital certificates," NetDox will guarantee that the document is sent privately and verify the identities of both sender and recipient, backing the guarantee with $25,000 if a customer suffers a business loss.

UPS, NetDox's first beta customer, is evaluating only the NetDox offering for its planned service, which would give the start-up a major channel of distribution. NetDox said the UPS deal is not exclusive, so the service could be offered to competitors as well.

"This is mostly a service for people who work on the Net and want to get information fast but want it to be secure," Schnorbus said. Customers could use the UPS service directly from their desktop computers once they obtain appropriate software and a digital certificate, also called a digital ID.

UPS hopes to use the Net to gain market share in document delivery from FedEx, which today has cornered that market while UPS primarily delivers other types of packages.

The shipper has other Internet initiatives as well. It lets customers track their shipments, calculate costs, and find drop-off locations from the UPS Web site. Search engines Yahoo, Infoseek, and Lycos also allow for the tracking of UPS deliveries. In addition, it lets companies install such tracking features on their own Web sites for their customers.

For NetDox, owned by Deloitte & Touche and the Thurston Group, the UPS trial represents a big boost in the courier segment, one of its four target markets. NetDox also had previously named Boston high-tech law firm Hale and Dorr as a beta customer, spearheading its push into professional services. NetDox also is targeting financial services, health care, and global manufacturers as customers.

As part of its service, NetDox rates certificate authorities, the entities that issue "digital IDs," to vouch for a user's identity on the Internet. Based on those ratings, it will insure the secure delivery of electronic documents if the authority is considered reliable enough. Otherwise, it simply delivers the documents without the guarantee of identity and integrity of the message.