The US Postal Service is considering dropping the number of postal delivery days from six to five.  The only problem with this idea is not going far enough.

What’s the right delivery frequency?  I’d suggest starting with weekly deliveries.  This would not significantly degrade the quality of service.   Most mail is not time-critical.  Larger items that are time sensitive could be handled just as well by services like UPS and FedEx.  For short messages, we have telephones, email, IM, SMS, or, for those who want to drag along, fax machines.

Physical mail should not be protected as if it were still the only or even the best form of long-distance communication.  It’s one option among many and neither needs nor deserves the level of subsidy and protection it receives.  More, as recent losses have demonstrated, it simply can’t afford to operate at these levels.

It’s time to allow the postal service to adjust to current realities.  Congress needs to drop the requirement for daily delivery and the USPS needs to respond with more than a minor restructuring.  These services have their place and can be profitable, but not if they remain stuck in the past.

Transitional Services

January 7, 2009

While preparing a post on the topic of transitional services, I found out that someone else had already done a great job of introducing the topic.  Mike McDerment of Freshbooks gave this definition:

Transitional Services are services that facilitate a user’s transition from one platform to the next – or at the least, ease their pain.

Before going on, I’d recommend you read the rest of his post.  For Freshbooks, their transitional service was offering paper invoices as an adjunct to their core tool of providing online invoicing.  It made it easy for users and companies to shift to the online system while making the old process (paper invoices) even easier than before.  That’s the best sort of transitional tool.  Make the old easier.  Smooth the transition to the new.  Don’t leave people behind in the process.

This is precisely the service Postful has been able to offer to a number of other sites (many too small to either efficiently handle their own print production or outsource).  We let them shift to a digital workflow while making it easy for users who still prefer or need paper.

By doing so, we have no illusions about print returning to it’s central role in communication.  But we do believe that, like any worthwhile transition, this one will be accelerated and eased by not making it an all-or-nothing decision.

While billions of documents are still printed and mailed every day, the information that composes those documents is increasingly stored on the web.  Providing a bridge between that data and print output is a huge task and offers equally large opportunities.

More, as we develop these processes for print, we’re building the tools that will be needed to help the rest of the manufacturing sector integrate with the computing cloud.  Print is just the first of the these physical processes to make the transition.  When the wave hits the rest of the manufacturing sector, we can look forward to a surge of innovation which promises to make the next decade a very interesting time.

Less Paper

January 6, 2009

Xerox’s Francois Ragnet recently released a whitepaper contrasting the goal of a fully paperless office with the idea of focusing on using less paper.  We enthusiastically embrace both goals, but agree with Francois that the place to start is with less paper.

Too many efforts at creating paperless offices have forced an all-or-nothing decision.  By pushing organizations to make a single large leap, costs are vastly increased and change becomes disruptive.  Internal opposition often stops such projects before the implementation is complete.

More, for the moment, paper remains a valuable tool for communication and is still essential for reaching certain parts of the population.  Given that, the real question is how best to build hybrid workflows.  How can we keep the advantages of paper while transitioning to digital documents and tools?

Obviously, there is no single answer.  There are a number of pieces that are still developing rapidly.  Huge improvements are yet to be made in everything from document management systems to digital readers and portable devices.

Services like Postful can provide one piece of the puzzle by allowing a fundamentally digital workflow to easily output physical documents.  For users who still wish to use paper, this can provide a better experience than even a traditional paper-only process. All users are left better off rather than having some left behind.

The key concept is that a digital document is not tied to a particular output format.  A document can be viewed by one user as an email, by another as a printed letter, and by another as a series of SMS messages.  The medium isn’t the message.

Such systems can take into account the preferences of all users and do so in a way that maximizes the advantages of the digital core.  It allows for a smoother transition and more useful final result.

And, while we all keep working towards the paperless office, check out Francois’ whitepaper for some great ideas on simply using less paper.

Print Scales Up

August 29, 2008

While I’m sad to say that this isn’t one of the new features we will be announcing next week, it’s still a cool extension of print concepts.

Expanding 3D printing technologies (often used for rapid prototyping) from plastics to concrete, a USC group in conjunction with Caterpillar is testing a system to ‘print’ homes.  Once available, it should be able to print out a full house in hours.

The Other Half of Mail

July 24, 2008

Being able to send letters from your computer is great.  But you still have to go down to your mailbox and pick up your incoming mail.  Thankfully, there are several services willing to take care of that for you.

Earth Class Mail allows you to set up a mailing address at one of their facilities and direct your incoming mail there.  They scan the mail and provide it to you online.  If you need the actual letter, they handle forwarding that on to you.  It really seems that this is something the USPS should do (and working with national postal systems is part of Earth Class Mail’s model).

Pixily is a new entrant.  Rather than automatically handling your mail, they have you collect your documents and then re-mail them to their center.  If you still want to receive your mail directly but would like to have someone else handle document scanning (for bills or other pieces you want saved), this is a great option.  There are similar services like Shoeboxed which focus on receipts (as I glance nervously at the wad on receipts on the floor next to me).

Paper documents and mail still have a place, but for many of us, that place should be far away from our desks and offices.  Postful lets you handle the outgoing side.  These services let you handle the incoming.  It’s a combination which allows you to stay connected across all formats while working in the way that’s best for you.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer predicted today that print will be dead in ten years.

There will be no media consumption left in ten years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form.

Ballmer is off by at least ten years since at least the first part of this is true today. Whether the final output is screen or paper, there is no significant media left that isn’t “delivered over an IP network”. Print as a fundamental distribution medium is already dead.

Information is produced in whatever format is most convenient to the producer, moved into a digital network (open or closed), and output in whatever format is most useful to the consumer. But the final output is far less important than the intermediate phases of aggregation and distribution which are already entirely digital.

On the other hand, print as an output format is not going to be gone in ten years. Some people prefer print. Some situations make print a better solution. Sometimes print is just fun (candles are still sold, after all). As long as any of those are true, some media will still be delivered to consumers in print.

But all of that information and media will pass through digital networks before delivery. It already does. Companies that are looking for opportunities in the death of print have missed the point that as the fundamental distribution medium, it’s already dead. The change isn’t coming 10 years from now, or five, or even tomorrow. It’s already here.

Newspapers or magazines will continue their decline. Print as a whole will become less common even for output. But the details of that rate of change are incidental to the fundamental change has already taken place. Any company waiting ten years for this has already missed the point.

As you know, here at Postful we’re big on digital/physical integration. ReadWriteWeb has an interesting article on Nota’s offering of what they call C-Shirts. These are shirts with scannable codes allowing anyone to view, edit, and order a copy if they see someone wearing a shirt that they like.

The key to this is the ubiquity of QR (Quick Response) codes in Japan. Nearly all Japanese cell-phones are built to read these. Posters have them as links to more information, ads have them, even vending machines and, now, clothes have them.

In the US, various barcode formats and systems have tried to replicate this. In print, there have been efforts to create both custom readers (CueCat) and proprietary barcode standards.

The alternative has simply been to include a raw url. Lately, print vendors have been pushing PURLs (personal urls), mainly for use in direct mail. But the difference between briefly pointing your phone at an ad and copying down a url for later entry is huge. Looking at the Japanese mobile market, you see the difference that an established, consistent format makes.

But whether through QR, RFID, or some other technology, we can expect to see this trend continue to mature in Japan and expand elsewhere. In print (whether on paper or on clothing) the capability is already here. For other physical products, it won’t be long. For all of us, it will be another step to bringing together our physical and digital spaces.