OUT OF STAMPS? Forget the frantic dash to the post office, just download your stamps from the Internet direct to your PC. If trials in the US prove successful, this could be the shape of things to come in the near future. The US Postal Service has been evangelising PC postage for over a year, but not until now has someone heeded its call - E-Stamp, a tiny Silicon Valley start-up, has evolved a system which it claims is cheap, secure and easy to use. It consists of special PC software and a printer cable linked to a device containing security chips which prevents users from printing stamps without first paying for them. Stamps are bought by logging-on to a postal authority web site and quoting a credit card number: the required number of postage credits are then downloaded. 'Stamps' must be printed by a laser printer to ensure the image is sharp enough for post office scanners to read accurately. E-Stamp also provides special envelopes with two windows - one for the address, the other in the top right corner for the 'stamp' impression - obviating the need to run envelopes through the printer. The system will retail for around $300 - far cheaper than any ordinary franking machine. Pitney Bowes, a world leader in franking machines, plans to offer PC-based postage systems but, according to UK strategy manager John Ivers, will wait to see how the market develops: 'There is considerable debate about how to pay for postage', he says. The Royal Mail is currently testing a new scanning system capable of reading both sides of envelopes simultaneously, including postage franks and addresses for sortation.
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