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The Internet

How The Postman Almost Owned E-Mail 478

Thrawn writes "'Imagine that the U.S. Postal Service was in charge of e-mail. Sound absurd? It does to most people until they realize that it almost happened.' " I think the chance of it actually happening are massively overstated in this article, but it's still an interesting "What If". But about as likely, as say, The Confederacy ? winning the US Civil War ? .
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How The Postman Almost Owned E-Mail

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  • Scary... (Score:2, Funny)

    by Rellik66 ( 596729 )
    Great, just what I wanted, a disgrunteled postal worker handling all my E-Mail
    • So does this mean we wouldn't get e-mail if it snowed?

      Doh.
    • Re:Scary... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Ironica ( 124657 ) <pixel@b o o n d o c k.org> on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:41PM (#3989476) Journal
      Hm, yes, so scary. What on earth would it be like if the USPS had offered the first e-mail service?

      - USPS has very strict government regulations regarding privacy. Less distribution of your email address.

      - USPS is non-profit. Less *motivation* to sell your email address. We wouldn't get more spam... instead, we'd be reasonably sure that if we never gave out our email addresses, we'd never get *any* spam. Not so with many (most?) of today's ISPs.

      - Post offices are literally everywhere in the country. People who currently find email inacessible because they're in the boondocks might not be in this situation.

      Fact is, if the post office had gone ahead with development of electronic mail, it probably would have been a lot like the proprietary services (i.e. AOL, CompuServe) before the internet boom. ARPA still would have seen a need for the internet, they still would have gone to university research (TCP/IP was invented at a public institution, with government money... and look how horrible it turned out), and USPS along with everyone else would have been scrambling to make themselves compatible with it.

      The worst possible thing I can think of is that maybe those millions of AOL subscribers who currently have no concept of what the internet is, but manage to rampage across it anyway, would instead be USPS subscribers. Would that really be worse?

      government != evil.
      • Re:Scary... (Score:2, Insightful)

        by GuanoBoy ( 196948 )
        You wrote:

        > - USPS has very strict government regulations regarding privacy. Less distribution of your email address.

        Well, let's stop at "strict regulations regarding privacy". Just read your AT&T/AOL/WhateverISP user agreement. Things that boil down to "thou shall not trade MP3s or movies", "thou shall not send anything offensive to anybody", etc, etc, etc. Plus, they retain the "right" to check.

        The Postal Service has very strict regulations on who, when, and where your mail may be opened and inspected...maybe watered down a little since 11 Sep, but still very strong.

        Fedex, UPS, and the other commercial carriers have no such restrictions on limiting and checking the contents of packages and are not consistent in how they apply rules, anyway. Some time ago there was the story of a package of Playboy magazines that got intercepted during transit by one of the commercial carriers and was destroyed (or maybe returned) for being "obscene" material.

        > - USPS is non-profit. Less *motivation* to sell your email address...

        Well, they DO sell your home address to commercial interests, but they do so because of the results of competition with electronic services: email and online ordering and bill-paying. Once they came along, there was very little incentive to send a letter to someone...just email 'em. You can even send 'em an electronic greeting card. Why buy a stamp to mail a bill when you can do it online conveniently?

        The Post Office's revenue sank, so they had to make up for some of it by selling your address to marketers. They're bastards for doing it, but had sound business reasons to do so.

        Most online marketers sell your personal info merely to inflate profits. ...and because they can...

        An email system run by the Post Office with competition from the private sector as well would have made everybody better off.

    • Great, just what I wanted, a disgrunteled postal worker handling all my E-Mail

      As opposed to one of us happy, well-balanced sysadmins? :)

  • I've seen this already, and personally, I think it's a lot of crap. What is he suggesting? That any other systems of E-mail aside from ones controlled by the USPS would be *illegal*? Frankly, I think if the USPS had their own E-mail service, things wouldn't be so different, because there's no way any court would ever hold up an order to prevent other people from running other E-mail services. Sensationalism sucks.
    • by anthony_dipierro ( 543308 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:05PM (#3989331) Journal

      What is he suggesting? That any other systems of E-mail aside from ones controlled by the USPS would be *illegal*?

      Yep. It's already illegal to compete with the U.S. Postal Service for non-expedited personal mail.

    • by Ungrounded Lightning ( 62228 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:47PM (#3989492) Journal
      I've seen this already, and personally, I think it's a lot of crap. What is he suggesting? That any other systems of E-mail aside from ones controlled by the USPS would be *illegal*?

      Exactly.

      The USPS has a long history of using federal law to stamp out competing mail services.

      The usual excuse is that it undermines fixed-rate universal service by "cherry-picking" the inespensive job of delivering mail in and between cities or their business-office cores, which subsidizes the mail in rural areas. Federal law gives them a monopoly on first class mail and its equivalents (sealed point-to-point message) and they have enforced it jealously in the past.

      - Against many private competing mail carriers.
      - Against bicycle couriers. (Sometimes they'd let them carry and deliver IF you also bought a stamp.)
      - Against (shutting down) a pneumatic-tube package-deleivery system in Manhattan.

      and so on.

      I think they tried against Fax but the Bell system slapped them down. (They're a regulated monopoly.) Fedex initially got away with it because they promise overnight delivery (not available from USPS at the time) for a much HIGHER price than first-class mail.
  • would keep my inbox spam free if they charged 37 cents per email
  • by Teach ( 29386 ) <.graham. .at. .grahammitchell.com.> on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:04PM (#3989323) Homepage

    But about as likely, as say, The Confederacy winning the US Civil War.

    Can slashdot editors be modded "-1, Troll"?

  • than what we already have.
  • by peterdaly ( 123554 ) <petedaly.ix@netcom@com> on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:08PM (#3989346)
    From this information, the post office never even came close to "owning" email. They considered offering it as a service.

    A much better analogy is:
    "What if the Postman owned the first hotmail"
    Tons of variations which are closer to reality exist, but hotmail sums it all up in a sentence everyone would understand.

    The word "owned" is very misleading, and not supported in the article. They almost owned email as much as they own package delivery today. (Think UPS and FedEx)

    -Pete
  • There's just no way (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pheph ( 234655 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:12PM (#3989361) Homepage
    There are so many methods of communication that differ so slightly (ie~ ICQ, AIM, Jabber, etc) from eMail that the Postal Service wouldn't have had a chance at controlling anything. eMail is just a client server communication. Very few people, much less the USPS [usps.gov] can stop that. The USPS would have to have a legal mandate that says no personal information can travel from one person to another on the internet.

    It also seems that the USPS wasn't trying to control eMail, but add a service to their physical handling of mail to speed up delivery.

  • Postman (Score:5, Funny)

    by Wrexen ( 151642 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:13PM (#3989366) Homepage
    Sorry, I find it highly unlikely that Costner [imdb.com] could have "owned" anything
  • ...that in many other countries outside of the US, the government postal services do indeed, if only indirectly, run the email systems. In many countries, the phone system is run by the postal service.

    So the idea isn't really all that far-fetched. I would consider it a narrow miss. Things could have be even worse than they are now.
  • Off Base (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jchawk ( 127686 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:16PM (#3989379) Homepage Journal
    The article talks about an electronic service where you could transmit electronic messages between roughly 25 post offices. The messages would be printed out and then hand delivered like normal mail.

    Honestly I don't see how this is anything like email, which is 100% electronic.

    - Why I like email? Because there's no mail man for my dog to bite.
    • Sounds a lot like the "telegram" to me.

    • The 25 post office electronic/hardcopy hybrid was just the last thing that actually happened. The Postmaster General determined that "Generation III" delivery systems of the kind we're familiar with today should not be a part of the mission of the Postal Service.

      The point of the article was that he could as easily have decided to go the other way

    • Prodigy tried something like this in the early 90s. For recipients that didn't have a computer with internet access, they would print out your letter and mail it to the recipient. It died rather quickly.

      Back to the article... the Postmaster General in 1972 decided that the USPS should NOT be involved in terminal to terminal electronic mail. Otherwise, they probablly would have gone into that field.
    • Re:Off Base (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jpostel ( 114922 )
      The difference is that the plan was created in 1982, when the only people that had even *heard* about email were geeks working for the government, large universities, or large corps.

      It also provides the opportunity to have legally binding email. Todays email can be forged on either end without digital signatures (I won't get in to crypto here), but the penalties for doing so are relatively meek if they are even enforced. Whereas, messing with the USPS is mail fraud, which is what they sent Al Capone to jail for.
  • Canada Post (Score:5, Informative)

    by SClitheroe ( 132403 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:17PM (#3989382) Homepage
    I'm not sure if the USPS does anything like this, but Canada Post runs epost.ca, which is like their version of Hotmail. It's free, and the upshot is that you can configure your account so that the various companies that you interact with, such as the phone company, the cable company, your bank, etc, send emails via epost.ca rather than printed bills or notices.

    I guess it works because in some sense email from epost.ca is "official", since it's run by the Post Office. Sort of a neat concept, I guess.
    • Ditto.
      I think there is *still* a huge potential for a USPS run website, despite the Yahoos and hotmails.
      It can become like a universal one-stop corrspondance. like myname@usmail.com.
    • Canada Post runs epost.ca

      yes indeed, and it is just as clumsy and unreliable as you would expect from government bureaucrats. i've been trying to log in to my account for two days now.
    • Re:Canada Post (Score:3, Interesting)

      I heard a proposal about this about a year ago on NPR. Make some (U.S.) governmental agency, presumably the post office, responsible for creating an e-mail for everyone or at least available for everyone. As proposed, it would be a FREE (beer) and free (from spam) service. Tax payer dollars would be paying for it in the end. But I thought it was a very interesting idea, this way important notices from the government directed to you would could sent via snail mail and/or through e-mail. It would be a way for the government (good or bad) to get in touch with you if you had moved often or just prefer doing things online. License renewal coming up? They would send you a reminder. Male and 18, they would let you know that you have to register for selective service. Links to the IRS 'round tax time. Speeding ticket? It would "remind" you of the location of where to send the check, or the address of the courthouse. When you should be getting your tax refund. List of candidates for local, state and national offices during election. I'm sure that it will certainly speed up the government end of communication, instead of having to rely on snail mail. It would certainly make the government more friendly (and perhaps more intrusive). I think the key part to this though is that this mail must be able to be forwarded to another e-mail account. People wouldn't check their government account about back taxes they owe or about local elections. Most people don't care and aren't interested but if sent to an already existing account it would be useful. I think the big question however is that would only the government have use of this e-mail account? I'm not sure how spam could be prevented otherwise. I have given none of my friends my hotmail e-mail address and yet I am spammed all day. In the end I don't think that it would "work" but an interesting thought.
      • Re:Canada Post (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Ian Bicking ( 980 )
        I think the big question however is that would only the government have use of this e-mail account? I'm not sure how spam could be prevented otherwise.
        Easy, charge for sending mail to those mailboxes. It could be done cheaper than snail mail, so it'd be competetive, and the post office could still back it up with paper delivery for non-email-using patrons.

        This would put it out of the hands of most peer communication (unless you wanted to be official about something), but it would still be very useful. Maybe they'd have accounts associated with a public key, you'd put money in the account, and then sign your messages that you sent to post office emails (which would also increase overall security when doing official business). You could provide a PDF attachment to compliment the plaintext, and they could print and deliver that if you didn't read the email within a certain amount of time (perhaps that you yourself specify in the email).

        It could be a pretty slick system, really. And when I think about it, I'd trust the post office as a PK certification authority much more than any other institution (public or private) that I can think of. Verisign is evil, and they're what comes out of private authorities. From the FBI I'd expect Clipper chip, Echelon, or other security-compromising malicious activity. But the post office is pretty damned good at security (massive, mundane security, like not opening letters). And they are politically neutral, while most other government agencies are not. And they don't gouge the market, whether or not they are a monopoly, unlike private industry. And they are democratic, creating a real infrastructure even in areas where there isn't profit to be made.

  • There's no way anyone could control email now adays. Some company could easily setup a server on the internet that allowed email. They would probably call it something else like the Virtual Note Sending System, something that didn't sound like "mail". People would send messages through it just like email now. What could the post office do about it? If you can getting putting swings past the government patent office, you can bs a business like this past the government postal service.
  • First, more or less on-topic, and to clear up a common misconception: yes, the USPS has a monopoly on first-class mail. No, we shouldn't consider allowing competition. What most people don't know is that the USPS is mandated (by the same government that gave it the monopoly in the first place) to pick and and deliver at every address in the country every day. Think of the mind-boggling logistics behind that statement. Then realize that FedEx and UPS sometimes give their own deliveries to the USPS because they can't be bothered to go Smallville.

    Second, on the Civil War remark, check out Harry Turtledove's The Guns of the South [powells.com], which is based on just that premise: how could the South win the Civil War, and what would happen afterwords? Very nicely done.
    • Blockquoth the poster:
      Second, on the Civil War remark, check out Harry Turtledove's The Guns of the South [powells.com], which is based on just that premise: how could the South win the Civil War, and what would happen afterwords? Very nicely done
      I'm not sure I accept as a serious "What if?" solution a premise that, well, time travelers drop off a carton of AK-47s. Yes, he did a nice job after the deus ex machina but it was unsatisfying, IMHO. How Few Remain, on the other hand, was truly excellent and much more believable.
    • Guns of the South, is a pure fiction novel. Neo-racists use a time machine to supply the Confederates with AK-47's. Not a very reasonable premise of how they could have won.

      A MUCH more realistic portrayal of how the Confederacy could have won the war, is in the pre-history to his book How Few Remain, which is a novel of the Second War Between the States, set approximately 20 years after Lincoln was forced to sign a peace treaty with the Confederacy.

      The basic premise, is that early on, the South was spanking the North pretty badly. This was prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. At the time, the other countries of the world, would have viewed Lincoln issuing it, as coming from a position of weakness. And the goal would have been thought to be insurrection. In 1862, a Confedearte courier was killed and the troop deployment information he carried fell into the hands of the Union. Using this information, the Union won a solid victory at last, at Antietam. Now Lincoln could issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Once the emancipation proclamation was issued, there was a moral difference between the 2 parts of the US, and the European powers could in no way support the Confederacy.

      In Turtledoves world, the couriers information was never captured by the Union. The Confederates continued to hold strong positions. Because neither of the parties in the battle was morally different, France and England then force Lincoln to negotiate a peace treaty, rather than having them join forces with the Confederates, in "punishing" the Union, and reducing the power of a growing competitor.

      The book How Few Remain is actually set 20 years later, when a Second Civil War flares up. This time France and England are full allies of the CSA, and join in the party. The Union gets soundly smacked around a second time. And in an interesting twist, by the end the Union starts forging ties to the Austro-Hungarian empire. 3 years later, the "Great War" series of his kicks in. WW-I has broken out in Europe, and the Confederates, and the Union try going at each other a third time, this time, without the assistance of the Europeans who are busy with their own fight. And you have Tank, and trench warfare raging across the middle of North America.

      Turtledove has built a VERY rich world. Populated by lots of names that are recognizable. All in all his fiction is VERY highly regarded.
  • by MosesJones ( 55544 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:20PM (#3989393) Homepage

    Process..

    Email addresses are in the form

    Name@Address@Town@State@Country

    Printers are "conveniently located" throughout the country. Postal service works include email delivery as part of their standard round.

    Could be worse though, they could have had accountants run it. Then we'd all be told how the value of the network was huge as millions of dollars of Nigerian money was being offered on a daily basis.
  • by Kaboom13 ( 235759 ) <kaboom108 AT bellsouth DOT net> on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:23PM (#3989407)
    Naturally, free and independent email services would operate alongside it, but imagine if, for a reasonable fee, you could have a postal service mail account in which all e-mails it sends or recieves have all the same protections and legal bearing of snail mail. I think this service would be invaluable for businesses or independent professionals. Many things can not be done over e-mail because the messages do not bear the same legal weight as snail mail. Consider how many times the postal service's datestamp has been used as evidence in court.
    • Yeah. Back in November, 2000, the democrats used the lack of the postmark to disenfranchise thousands of military personnel. Oh, but surely those votes were evenly split between Gore and Bush, they were just making sure the letter of the law outweighed the spirit of the law this time.
    • Naturally, free and independent email services would operate alongside it, but imagine if, for a reasonable fee, you could have a postal service mail account in which all e-mails it sends or recieves have all the same protections and legal bearing of snail mail.

      I would gladly pay 50c for a service that worked like registered mail. Or even 5c on occasion for an e-mail that I knew would reach it's intended recipient. They could charge extra to e-mail snail mail addresses too. It might cost them less to just print it out at the destination and carry it to someone's home than to actually ship letters, they could print it out on thin paper too to save weight. Even if it wasn't it would be faster & more convenient...

      Real snail mail could be reserved for post cards and love letters.
  • What? (Score:3, Funny)

    by rmohr02 ( 208447 ) <{ude.uso} {ta} {24.rhom}> on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:25PM (#3989413)
    But about as likely, as say, The Confederacy winning the US Civil War.
    The, ahem, War of Northern Aggression hasn't been lost yet. The South shall rise again!
  • This tells how the postman almost offered a service that had similarities with modern day e-mail.
  • not a bad idea, IMHO (Score:4, Interesting)

    by esarjeant ( 100503 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:28PM (#3989430) Homepage
    Given the volatility of the ISP market, a national email infrastructure would have been a wonderful thing. You could maintain a permanent email with the US Post Office and not have to worry about what might happen to your address if your service provider should change.

    Imagine not having to worry about @mediaone.com suddenly not working for you. Just about every major provider has undergone a substantial shift in how they process emails, resulting in everything from new domain names to new mail accounts. I can't tell you how many people I can no longer find @compuserve.com.
  • by guttentag ( 313541 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:28PM (#3989433) Journal
    We would still get spam
    The USPS delivers junk mail to my house every day because corporations pay the USPS to deliver it. My mail carrier hides my real mail in the newspaper-like junk mail so I have to flip through it to avoid throwing out real mail. He does this because the postal service makes a large chunk of its revenue this way, yet it still loses money regularly.

    Spam would be easier to filter out
    The fact that it would no longer be free would cut down on the volume of spam and the variation, making it much easier to detect and filter out.

    Email would be more closely monitored
    for subversive/threatening content, copyrighted content, etc. And unlike traditional mail, anonymity would be impossible because the mail would be sent from an account connected directly to your name, home address and social security number.

    It would cost us money per email
    Right now we can send all the emails we want (more or less) without fear of a huge bill. But if the USPS controlled email, you'd probably have the option of buying "stamps" on a per-email basis or having your account billed monthly. You would pay perhaps 3 cents for up to 100k, 5 cents for 200k and so on.

    • We would still get spam

      Spam would be easier to filter out.

      Probably, yes.

      Email would be more closely monitored.

      That's what encryption is for. Plus, the fact that people only have a single email address linked to their name, address, and social security number would be a good thing, as this could be used to stop people from creating multiple accounts.

      It would cost us money per email

      I highly doubt it. But even if so, the price would be absolutely miniscule. I'd much rather have the U.S. government charging me for email and not making a profit off it than a private corpoation making a profit off it.

      • Email would be more closely monitored.

        That's what encryption is for. Plus, the fact that people only have a single email address linked to their name, address, and social security number would be a good thing, as this could be used to stop people from creating multiple accounts.

        And why are multiple accounts a bad thing? Having a single email account will just facilitate tracing your online presense.
        It would cost us money per email

        I highly doubt it. But even if so, the price would be absolutely miniscule. I'd much rather have the U.S. government charging me for email and not making a profit off it than a private corpoation making a profit off it.

        And why is that? Don't you know that private corporations making profit is what makes the economy work? While the government will just cheerfully piss away your money along with all the
        kajillions dollars of taxes it gets every year?

        This kind of attitude makes me sick. It's like you don't mind being screwed as long as someone doesn't do better. That's the king of mediocre egalitarianism that brought about communism.
      • The Postal Service hasn't really been part of the government since Nixon was president. What was then known as the Post Office Department became an independent corporation called the United States Postal Service. Technically, it's owned by the government (like AMTRAK, the government bails it out when it can't pay its bills each year in the interest of keeping the country's infrastructure running smoothly) and because it has been granted a monopoly it has to meet certain requirements set forth by Congress>

        However, unlike a government agency, if the Post Office makes a profit, that money doesn't go to the federal government. The USPS keeps it to help it fulfill its charter in the future.

  • by fm6 ( 162816 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:35PM (#3989458) Homepage Journal
    Who is it at Technology Review that keeps churning out these historically-illiterate might-have-been stories? Last time it was somebody arguing that we could have had cell phones in the 1930s if it hadn't been for the KGB, or something equally absurd.
  • USPS is excellent (Score:2, Flamebait)

    by rossz ( 67331 )
    Seriously. Have you ever dealt with the postal service in another country? For the most part, it sucks. All too often, packages disapear. If something does arrive, it took bloody forever.

    I stopped complaining about the USPS after having extensive dealings with European postal services.
    • Re:USPS is excellent (Score:2, Interesting)

      by jpmorgan ( 517966 )

      I disagree. Royal Mail (the UK postal service) is very good. Twice daily deliveries in most places, six days a week. I put a letter in the mail, it shows up the next day, and I've never seen anything get lost. Of course it's a much smaller country, so it's easier to be good and fast. :)

      Still, though the UK does have a long tradition of an excellent postal service.

  • Ok, I know this is slightly offtopic, but i'll say it anyway. I have read all the various news stories about how email is/will kill conventional means of post. But, i feel the internet has created a huge increase in shipping. Why? because, before the net, not many people catalog shopped, however, since the net, so many more people are ordering online, and guess what, what they order gets shipped to them. Also, dont forget eBay, lots of sellers dont accept electronic payments, so how do you get the money to them, regular snail mail.
    Also, in the past, how many people actually sent letters to people, I remember the last time i mailed a letter, i was in grade school and writing to my assigned penpal.
  • by chazzf ( 188092 ) <cfulton.deepthought@org> on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:56PM (#3989536) Homepage Journal
    I don't like to accuse people of out hand, but the Confederacy winning the Civil War was a fairly likely thing for the first few years. Most Union generals (McClellan, Banks, Burnside) measured up very poorly against their Confederate counterparts (Lee, Jackson, Johnston).

    Had the south won the Battle of Antietam in 1862, as it almost did, the war would have likely ended. Even as late as 1864 Lincoln was in serious electoral trouble until Grant finally delivered. Had McClellan won, he would have pursued peace.

    I can excuse spelling mistakes, but as a historian I am appalled at the ignorance of the editors.

    ~Chazzf
    • by mjh ( 57755 )
      I'm not a historian, but I think you might be missing the point. I don't think the analogy that Mr H made was meant to suggest that the south could not possibly have won the war. I think that it was meant to suggest that claiming that the south won the civil war, is as far off as claiming that the USPS could have owned email. But that's just my read of it.

      ... the south lost the civil war, right? Hey, I said I wasn't a historian!

  • by DeepEyes78 ( 551679 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @07:59PM (#3989560)
    Really, I'd rather have a small amount of my tax dollars put towards a e-mail account that I know will be there for the rest of my life. (As opposed to getting a "free" account with a .com that might not be there tomorrow.) Not only that, but since it's paid for by taxes, you won't have to worry about the gov't selling your e-mail for extra $$$ (In an ideal world anyway.) I'm not saying that the USPS should be the only one providing e-mail, but I don't think it would be the horrible thing that everyone is making it out to be.
  • Whine, bitch, moan (Score:5, Insightful)

    by r_j_prahad ( 309298 ) <r_j_prahad@hotma ... m minus math_god> on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @08:01PM (#3989566)
    Look, the United States Postal Service does a damn good job for the money. Bitch if you want about the thirty-seven cents, but why don't you try hiring a cab to hand-deliver your envelope door-to-door and maybe that'll give some idea what the service is really worth. The USPS has been getting a bum rap for decades now for doing nothing less than a fantastic job with shit for a budget.

    The USPS is also a serious proponent of Linux, having deployed more than 5400 Linux boxes internally to do address scanning and recognition. Google for "Linux USPS", it's the first unsponsored link.

    I'm trying real hard here to think how the USPS could fuck up the Internet any worse than Adelphia or Qwest, and if there is something more nefarious that they could've done, it escapes me.
  • by -tji ( 139690 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @08:03PM (#3989575) Journal
    As others have pointed out, the USPS could not just come in and 'own' e-mail, they could provide an e-mail service, that people would use only if it provided enough value to justify the cost.

    Most likely, the main users would have been business customers, who were willing to pay for the services.

    Having a central, semi-trusted authority, employing sound technologies, could have taken e-mail much farther than it is today. Features like:

    - Useful encrypted e-mail (i.e. a central certificate authority, with a strong registration process).
    - Based on a modern protocol with some assurances of identity. SMTP is trivial to spoof, but is so widespread it's impossible to replace. It would take an organization with some clout to promote a new open standard.
    - SPAM control

    When people hear of the USPS doing e-mail, they think of their local mail carriers and laugh. Obviously it would not be run by those people, it would be a group of trained specialists designing and implementing it.

    Of course, I still would not trust them with my e-mail, or pay them for the service. But, I bet my employer would. And, I bet I would use the GNU version of their open standards and strong security on my Linux box.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @08:39PM (#3989711) Homepage
    I looked into using the USPS's "Electronic Computer-Originated Mail" back in the 1980s. We were considering it as a delivery system for E-mail for people who weren't on the Internet. (Yes, kiddies, there was an Internet back then; it just wasn't very big.) The USPS had managed to do almost everything wrong.

    First, you submitted mail by emulating an IBM remote-job entry system and submitting a batch job. Error messages came back the next day, by paper mail. Really.

    You had to send a minimum number of mail pieces per batch, the minimum being 100 or so. And they all had to have the same first 2 digits of the zip code, because the whole batch was printed at the same place, in some regional mail-handling facility. The switching was per-job, not per-message. (Some third party company tried to set up a switching system to take individual messages and accumulate them, but it didn't catch on.)

    Finally, it cost about the same as first class mail. More for long messages, based on pages printed.

    Even bulk mailers didn't like it. The biggest objection was that you couldn't include a return envelope, so it was useless for bills.

    Not that private enterprise did much better. FedEx tried something called ZapMail, where you faxed your message to a receiver in a FedEx truck, which then drove to the destination and delivered the message. Two-hour delivery. Killed by cheap fax machines.

  • The whole damned thing could have been won after 1st manassis. nothern generals before Grant became eastern theatre commander were fairly lame. However, the south didn't make the move. If they had followed the nothern army on the retreat, they would have been able to take DC on the first day of the war. That would more than likely be called 'winning' -- capturing the enemy capitol in record time. yup.
  • Back in the late 1970s I joined IBM as a junior electronic engineer. There I had my first experience of electronic mail. IBM had an internal network called VNET that connected all of their mainframes. It supported many of the services that we think of as characteristic of the Internet today - email, instant messages, file transfer, and remote terminal access. None of these services was as well implemented or architected as the Internet, but it wasn't too shabby for 1978.

    I was completely bowled over by email and used it a lot. To my dismay, however, in something like 1979 or so they renamed the program, which had been called "mail," because of concerns that the US Postal Service owned the name. The program was renamed "note" and most of us geeks thought the decision was hilariously stupid.

    It's fascinating to read this article and realize that what must have been going on was an effort by the USPS to protect its "brand name" for mail. I can just imagine IBM getting a lawyer letter from the Postal Service threatening legal action if they didn't stop using the word mail.

  • I don't think I'd want all those aliens in the post-office twiddling with my bits...
  • USPS (Score:4, Informative)

    by Quixote ( 154172 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @09:17PM (#3989900) Homepage Journal
    First, referring to the USPS as 'The Postman' is a bit demeaning, I'd say.

    The USPS has been at the leading edge of technology in many cases. As another poster mentioned, do a Google for Linux USPS [google.com] and see what you find. I speak from first-hand experience: I have worked on USPS' Linux systems. They have over 5000 dual-CPU boxes running Linux, sorting mail at real-time speeds (which is 13 pieces per second, mind you). The USPS handles 40% of the world's postal mail. They process over 500 million pieces of mail each and every working day.

    The USPS also has a huge network of SGI boxen deployed, again reading and sorting addresses (but this time those that were missed by the Linux boxes).

    With the current mess at ICANN, NSI, etc. do you think the USPS could have done any worse?

    And BTW: before you take potshots at the $0.37 FC postage rates, check the rates at other countries in Europe, f'rinstance.

    I have personally seen farmers deliver chicken hatchlings, ducks, etc. to the USPS for delivery, I kid you not. Live cargo! Lets see FedEx/UPS do anything even close.

  • by jc42 ( 318812 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @09:22PM (#3989920) Homepage Journal
    I'm really disappointed that nobody has yet pointed out that the Internet, SMTP, and all that were built on projects funded by the US Government. The DOD's ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), to be precise. I was using it back in the 70's, and I was quite aware of where the funding came from.

    And the actual constructions was done almost entirely by universities. The few "private" companies involved (such as BB&N) were living almost entirely off government grants and contracts.

    The corporate enterprise ideologists are trying hard to invent their own history so that they can claim some of the credit. But this is all historic revisionism. The real credit belongs to the evil old government, in collusion with a lot of academic hackers.

    It may be true that forms of email were developed by a number of computer vendors. But they were all proprietary (even UUCP and DECnet), didn't interoperate worth a damn, and mostly couldn't be licensed for a finite cost.

    It's kinda too bad. I've always thought that UUCP mail was better than SMTP. But if was freed by AT&T a bit too late, and SMTP already had the territory. Note that SMTP is defined by a set of US government standards.

  • by jpostel ( 114922 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @10:41PM (#3990150) Homepage Journal
    "The act required the Postal Service to âoepromote modern and efficient operations and [avoid] any practiceâ¦which restricts the user of new equipment or devices which may reduce the cost or improve the quality of postal services...â"

    What I love about this is that I know someone who works for the USPS and came up with US Patent 5,339,734. It is a small hand bar code stamper. Simple idea that would save tens of MILLIONS of dollars, if the USPS would promote the use of it.

    The address (ZIP code) on the front of an envelope is read by some OCR machines. If the OCR thinks it has a pretty good match (which it usually does) then it sends the letter on its way. This is very little problem for the majority of machine printed addresses and ZIP codes. Hand written addresses however cause more problems for OCR, which is why there is a secondary step of humans sitting in front of computer screens checking the addresses of the mail that the OCR machines did not like. The people watching the screens are doing the high speed assembly line equivalent of hand sorting mail.

    None of this comes into play, however, if the ZIP (or ZIP+4) is BAR CODED onto the envelope. Check out some bulk mail for the bar code on the envelope. That step eliminates the OCR and human mail sorter from the equation. Since the machines look for the bar code anyway, less steps = less money.

    The hand held bar coder would cost less than a few stamps if produced in bulk, but the USPS is unwilling to even consider the idea, because it would put hundreds of USPS employees out of work.
  • The Post Office (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Greyfox ( 87712 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @11:03PM (#3990206) Homepage Journal
    Would be the perfect place to offer authenticated encryption key registration. There's one in every town and they have the infrastructure deployed to validate your identity already. Go down there, show 2 forms of ID and give them a floppy disk with your PGP public key on it. They charge you nominal fee and slap it on their server with your name and stuff attached to it. I'd drop 10 or 15 bucks for that.

    Only it isn't going to happen because the government doesn't like encryption and the post office is (probably) too clueless to actually set up the necessary servers and keep them secure enough for it all to work.

  • by isdnip ( 49656 ) on Wednesday July 31, 2002 @11:04PM (#3990210)
    The article makes it sound as if the USPS wanted a "private express" type monopoly in email. I have a long memory of these things, and very seriously doubt it! Remember, email as we know it began over the ARPAnet in 1972; single-computer email goes back farther. Lots of people (myself included) were on the ARPAnet in the late '70s, using email galore. There was no thought of shutting us down. In the 1980s, there was also a lot of uucp mail, fido, DECnet, BITnet, and other types of email besides the venerable SMTP. These just could not be banned or shut down.

    And don't forget X.400, the 1980s idiot bastard child of the ITU itself, an email protocol so baroque that only a Lotus Notes developer could love it. X.400 was a bad implementation of a good idea, that being to have a multivendor standard. They just ignored SMTP's existence, even as millions used it. Right into the early 1990s there were people arguing that X.400's supposedly greater capabilities were necessary.

    Various worldwide postal agencies did build something called IntElPost (sp?) in the late '70s and early '80s; basically, it was international Group IV fax service between post offices. The USPS was not allowed to participate; it still operates in some countries.

    Somebody else has noted how the USPS introduced a truly awful RJE-printer papermail service, ECOM, which flopped big time. I note that MCI Mail, a 1981-ish consumer/business email service, had a paper-output option too; I occasionally used it to send paper mail.

    The USPS could potentially play a role in a future e-post system; that might be one way to cut spam. I'd be happy to pay, oh, a penny or so per email, provided that spammers did too. More likely, it would have to be some kind of micropayment scheme wherein my inbox would block something without an e-stamp, which would cost too much for a spammer. Of course that doesn't need the USPS, but they could be a player if they got their act together.

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