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Jewish World Review
Nov. 27, 2009
/ 10 Kislev 5770
USPS' Consumer Computer Problem
One week ago, on Nov. 16, the United States Postal Service reported a $3.8 billion
- with a "b" - dollar loss for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2009.
The quasi-governmental corporation said in a news release it could lose as much as
$7.8 billion during the current fiscal year.
There are many reasons why this proud, pre-1776 service, founded by Benjamin
Franklin, is on the ropes. One small part might be the agency's cavalier attitude
towards customers seeking to integrate today's computer technology with USPS
Since 1991, when the first computer-automated laserjet stamp-printing kiosks were
tested at the Merrifield, Virginia, post office, I've followed many iterations of
what could be called "digital postage," for want of a better term. Many of the
private sector initiatives, such as Stamps.com, have done relatively well in meeting
customer needs; bottom-line profits may have been more elusive.
To compete, the Postal Service has, among other items, a service called
"Click-N-Ship" at its Internet Web site, www.usps.com. Sign up for a free
account, have a credit (or debit) card handy, and you can print a Priority Mail or
Express Mail label, complete with bar code and postage, speeding you through the
mailing process. It could be a great boon for the millions.
The hassle came - at least for this reviewer - when trying to do all this with
an Apple Macintosh computer and Mac OS X version 10.6. The USPS site says their Web
service is geared towards computers running Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer,
and does not support Apple's Safari Web browser. Fair enough. But the claim is
also made that Mac users could employ Mozilla's Firefox browser. I tried. It
didn't work, twice.
The flaw, it turns out, is in making sure that Adobe Corp.'s Acrobat Reader is
specified as the "default" PDF file reader for such documents created with
Click-N-Ship. This involves getting into the "guts" of the Firefox program,
working with settings for applications and the like. It's not impossible, but
it's not super-friendly to busy consumers. And, apparently, it's not something
Windows users have to do.
At a time when the USPS is looking to grab every customer it can, and with the
holidays at hand, it seems grating that Mac users - who comprise nearly 9 percent
of the U.S. computer market in the third quarter of 2009, according to Gartner -
are relegated to second-class citizens when it comes to Click-N-Ship.
What's more, Mac users could end up paying more: the online shipping discount for
Click-N-Ship users isn't available, obviously, at postal counters. If a user
can't figure out how to print a label on a Mac, they're stuck.
Apparently, Mary Beth Fluto of the USPS feels my pain. She's manager of online
programs for the USPS, and said that an overall of www.usps.com, code-name
"Project Phoenix" is in the works. Ms. Fluto said it should appear online in the
"late spring [or] early summer" of 2010.
The Postal Service is redesigning the "most popular" elements of the Web site,
Ms. Fluto said, and is re-engineering "the 'print shipping label'
application," with a goal to "make it more Mac friendly." While Mac sales are
growing, Ms. Fluto said Mac users account for only 5 percent of USPS Web customers.
A boon for stamp collectors is also in the works, Ms. Fluto said, with plans to
revamp the "shop.usps.com" portion of the USPS Web site to provide "state of
the art e-commerce" and "cater a little more to collectors." Though the ranks
of American philatelists have probably dwindled from a one-time high of 20 million,
stamp collecting remains a popular hobby.
I can only hope the USPS burns the midnight oil and summons the spirit of Herodotus,
whose dictum about ancient Persia's couriers is paraphrased as "neither snow nor
rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of
their appointed rounds," to complete the task early. Every online shopper - and
shipper - deserves equal access at the Post Office.
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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.
© 2009, News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times. Visit the paper at http://www.washingtontimes.com