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E-mail nips postal base

November 25, 2001 

Stamp, lick and seal could be replaced by log on, point and click.

With nearly 20 cases of anthrax confirmed — and five deaths — many are now leery of the once-innocuous task of going to the mailbox.

The anthrax scare has been magnified by a seemingly endless parade of false alarms, with suspicious white powders being reported in planes, stores, schools, post offices, doctors' offices and a host of other places.

No one has been arrested in connection with mailing anthrax-tainted letters to media and government officials, and the unsettling mystery of who sent the deadly bacteria — and why — has led some to wonder whether the U.S. Postal Service will survive.

Will e-mail replace the mail service that has been a part of the American landscape for more than two centuries?

Regular mail to stay

Most experts agree e-mail and other services may continue to erode the post office's customer base, but it will be decades, if ever, before traditional mail fades away.

The U.S. Postal Service handled about 208 billion pieces of mail in 2000, according to postal officials.

E-mail, which is more difficult to track, has been estimated at nearly 300 billion messages in 2000 — from corporate mailboxes alone. Experts put the estimated number of total e-mails sent worldwide as high as a trillion.

Poughkeepsie's Charles Drees, 23, uses e-mail mostly to keep in touch with friends, but said he thought recent fears of anthrax contamination have made people think more about using it for business.

''It's pushing everything along,'' he said of the effects of recent events on people's adoption of technology.

Anthony Pennings, a professor of multimedia and communications at Marist College, said e-mail has been a contributor to the financial woes that have plagued the Postal Service — even before the nation had anthrax to think about.

''Of course, e-mail means the post office is going into the red,'' Pennings said. ''Whether (anthrax) will mean that more people will go online because they want to avoid the traditional mail system is a possibility, but I don't necessarily see a huge rush to get online to do that.''

Some are more direct.

''We believe it's a matter of time before physical mailboxes become a relic of the past,'' said Jim VanDyke, an analyst for Jupiter Media Metrix.

But VanDyke doesn't see a rush to e-mail because of anthrax. ''With the anthrax issue, barring some horrific level of poisoning across the country, I think we'll see this adoption of online content at a regular pace.''

Long before anthrax became a part of daily conversation, the U.S. Postal Service was positioning itself to become a part of the new media and shipping industry service. It is working to incorporate e-commerce into its daily business and to develop partnerships with other mailing and shipping businesses.

Postal officials have said the service will need to reposition itself in the market to be financially successful.

Wappinger resident Chinar Patel, 21, thinks traditional mail will survive.

''I can't do everything with e-mail,'' said Patel, a native of India who said she uses e-mail mostly to communicate with friends back home.

You can't get catalog orders through clicks of a computer, and many documents also must actually be sent — rather than scanned and sent virtually.

But the anthrax scares of October, when the first cases were diagnosed, may have hurried a trend already under way.

As tainted letters were found at media offices and in congressional office buildings in Washington, several members of Congress asked constituents to send e-mail rather than physical mail.

Some daily newspapers also took precautions. In one of the more publicized cases, the Arizona Daily Star's Oct. 16 edition carried a page one article asking readers to hold off on physical mail and send only e-mail correspondence.

Debbie Kornmiller, reader advocate for the Tucson paper, said the Daily Star was criticized for the move.

''We were just a little too far ahead of the curve,'' she said.

The next day the paper told its readers it would accept postcards and postmarked fliers, and on Oct. 29, less than two weeks after the new policy was announced, the paper rescinded it.

John Fontana, a senior editor at Network World Fusion, an online news service dedicated to technology issues and analysis, said he hadn't seen evidence of a convincing shift to e-mail in the past six weeks.

People send warnings

But he did find a new type of content.

''I've had people send me an e-mail saying: 'We're sending you a package,' '' Fontana said. ''It's interesting that people put out warnings.''

And while there is a lack of strong evidence to suggest people are turning to their electronic mailboxes in droves, there have been some interesting developments.

Jupiter Media Metrix on Nov. 12 said a noticeable weekly growth increase in online billing presentment — services where customers' bills are consolidated into an online statement and paid online.

Other analysts noted the same kind of increase. But there was not full agreement on the cause for the jump. The Jupiter report attributed the gains to forecasted growth. Others also credited already-expected growth, but suggested recent events may be the reason for more customer interest.

Some analysts see a future where online transactions and messaging are the standard, and paper mail becomes a minor player in the communications business.

But others disagree. They see a preference for the tangible.

''E-mail is so transitory,'' Fontana said. ''It comes and goes, and there's no real attachment. I think there's a human element to physical mail, to magazines and newspapers, that's not going to go away.''


By Nik Bonopartis, Copyright © 2001, Poughkeepsie Journal.

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