Rewire the Postal Service: Innovate or Die

postal address tag sticker

Today’s postal service has a reputation for being slow and hopelessly stuck in the old ways. The term “snail mail” doesn’t sound much like a product that Google would be rolling out anytime soon.

But it hasn’t always been this way:

The U.S. Postal Service has a long history of exploiting technology to offer alternate means of message transmission. At it’s inception, part of the Postal Department’s mandate was the construction of a network of post roads for mail to travel along, infrastructure with obvious secondary benefits for the young nation. From there, mail traveled by pony express, railroad and steamship, surmounting the technical problems to keep communication on pace with the country’s expansion. Soon after the development of powered flight, the USPS innovated again by delivering mail by plane.

Time and time again, circumstances have driven innovation,

Between 1942 and 1945, “V-Mail” (for “Victory Mail”) service was available for military mail. Letters were converted into microfilm and reprinted near the destination, to save room on transport vehicles for military cargo.[35]

From 1982 to 1985, Electronic Computer Originated Mail was accepted for bulk mailings. Text was transmitted electronically to one of 25 post offices nationwide. The Postal Service would print the mail, and put it in special envelopes bearing a blue ECOM logo. Delivery was assured within 2 days.[36]

So what happened? Why did the postal service suddenly run out of ideas? Did they sit back in a daze while the world changed or were they so harried and battered that there was no time or funds for innovation?

Here’s how I’d reinvent snail mail:

Today’s users have a dangerously low threshhold for hassle. Physically writing addresses and finding a stamp and writing a return address… too many steps. The USPS needs to design a cheap, dead-simple postage printer and give it away for free.

(Stamps.com, you say?  No, that’s too expensive and only does one thing.  A step forward but only for businesses.)

Make the top surface a digital scale. Add smoothly operating software that syncs up with any list of contacts and spits out a standardized sticker with address and postage. When it runs low on stickers or ink, it asks to dial home and order more, debited from your account. The same account gets dinged for a few cents if a letter hits the processing system and comes up “Postage Due” for a malfunctioning scale or an awkward shape.

Aside: Then there’s the secondary effect of having a sticker printer attached to every computer: Stickering goes mainstream. And no, nothing boring like putting your name on everything, real-life is now something everyone comments on. Public space is now public conversation, advertising posters are not a monologue but just the first voice in a conversation. The barrier to entry lowers, tech enables quality improvements, thus providing a more diverse group of voices, ie: people with something more interesting to say than drawings of penises or the letters BNE. /aside

Pair the printer up with free desktop publishing software that prints and addresses envelopes for any size letter. Market the whole package based on the lure of the physical in a digital world. WE HUMANS STILL LIKE TO TOUCH AND OWN THINGS. We just need to be reminded of that and given neat, easy ways to do so. Give us templates and let us make and share templates. Get HP, Lexmark and Epson to bankroll it but don’t let them touch the software, we want something that actually works.

Image derived from work by Blake Unger Dvorchik.

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