Although using e-mail has become the norm in the business world, everyone still uses paper mail to some extent. It's unavoidable, it's necessary, and unfortunately, it costs money to use. In many offices, postage meters have replaced the stamp roll just to avoid the hassle of buying stamps. An amount of money gets converted into postage potential inside of the meter. But you still have to drag it down to the post office for a refill, which can be a problem if you're in a remote location and the nearest post office is many miles away.
Wouldn't it be nice if the post office could refill the meter over the phone? Just charge the credit card and fill it up, please. People have asked for that capability for years, and the U.S. Postal Service has finally done something about it. The U.S. Postal Service created a system that allows postage to be generated from a printer and still be acceptable in daily practice. This is not a trivial problem—it's a lot like asking a government agency if you can print money. Stamps do have a cash value far greater than the media they are printed on.
Several programs have been developed for PCs that create stamps on a standard printer. Currently, the Mac platform offers only one approved vendor—Neopost. Neopost's product is called Simply Postage and consists of both hardware and software.
Simply Postage's hardware consists of a USB or serial port-linked stamp printer that's similar to the type used for labels. A digital scale plugs into the stamp printer. Neopost will ship you five printers, each in a different iMac color. In order to access Neopost's server, you also must have a modem or an Internet connection. (If you don't have an Internet connection, Simply Postage will run an AppleScript that sets up Remote Access to dial in to their server via a toll-free number.)
Neopost uses a converter from Entrega Technologies, Inc. that allows a normal Mac serial port cable to connect to a Mac via USB. You must use the provided software to install necessary USB drivers. However, this converter seems to be general-purpose in scope. It provides such a handy connectivity hardware solution that I would expect wide adoption of this technology by peripheral manufacturers that want to be able to connect one hardware design to all Macs.
Simply Postage software consists of a control program that links the Mac to the printer and scale and keeps track of the postage credit you've purchased with your credit card. While the software has a whizzy Aqua feel to it (translucent widgets light up as the mouse rolls over them), it's not the most intuitive interface. Certain control functions, such as zeroing out the scale, are hidden. Destination ZIP Codes, stamp quantities, and date of use must be manually entered for each purchase. This information is used to create the FIM bar codes on the stamp that encode date and destination ZIP Code. The postal service can scan the FIM bar code and automatically derive routing information, which helps keep delivery time to a minimum. Figure A shows Simply Postage's basic interface.
|Simply Postage's basic interface.|
The application doesn't appear to be scriptable, so macro or remote control of the purchasing process is impossible. I wonder whether this is a designed security feature or just an overlooked design opportunity. In any case, forget any dreams of having your mail merge program automatically generate the stamps. There's also no way to export usage information into a database for later audit. I believe that one of the main reasons someone might use a computer-attached stamp printer rather than a Pitney-Bowes standalone unit is to have an automatically generated audit trail that can be used in cost control.
The software's postage counter works like an odometer—you can't reset it without involving a factory technician. If a stamp isn't printed due to a printer jam or a label being misfed, you're still out the postage. I find this lack of hardware/software feedback disturbing. If a fax can confirm printing between two stations, it shouldn't be an insurmountable task to have some sort of sanity-check take place between the stamp printer and the program. Just blindly deducting the postage when a mouse-click is detected on the Purchase button isn't very sophisticated.
Fortunately, the Simply Postage software provides feedback between what the scale shows and the various postal rates that can be used. For example, I selected First Class Letter for the type of postage, and placed an overstuffed manila envelope on the scale. Simply Postage displayed an alert that informed me the item was too heavy for simple first class, and that I should use priority mail instead. The program wouldn't print a stamp with the wrong classification selected. This is a definite positive, and it's the kind of synergy that should be an integral part of the software. Perhaps the next software revision can include data export.
Simply Postage is most useful in simple, single-user situations. Unfortunately, there's no way to connect the stamp printer to a network—you can only connect it to a single Mac. The device rental is only about half that of mechanical/electronic stamp meters ($10 a month plus postage—after the initial $50 setup fee that covers $50 in postage you're given to start—versus about $60 a quarter for most standard meters). While it can be convenient for small-office use, the Simply Postage software could use a bit of rethinking and polishing to achieve maximum utility.
Larry Loeb has 20 years of computer journalism experience. He was the consulting editor at the late, lamented BYTE magazine, he launched WebWeek, he ran the online Macintosh section of BIX (the BYTE Information eXchange), and he wrote numerous articles for many major computer magazines. Recently, he wrote a book on secure electronic transactions, the protocol endorsed by MasterCard and Visa that allows merchants, cardholders, and banks to work together over the Internet. For banter, tips, and general screaming, send Larry an e-mail .The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.