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US Postal Service/The last monoply. Exit E-COM, enter OCR: USPS trends

Predicting the future of the Postal Service is like trying to forecast the daily mail flow: Postal managers would dearly love to be able to do both. But ``better people than you or I have tried to do it,'' quips superintendent Leo Gilbert of the Boston General Mail Facility, ``and they've ended up in rubber rooms.'' If postal costs do come into line and the USPS monopoly status is largely preserved, where do observers see the Postal Service heading in the future? Automation. By the turn of the century, says Deputy Postmaster General Jackie A. Strange, ``All of our processes will be automated.'' The Postal Service has already installed 252 optical character readers, or ``OCRs,'' which use computer technology to read typed ZIP codes at a rate of 28,000 letters an hour.

It has also added 248 bar-code sorters or ``BCSs,'' which use the input from the OCR to print a bar code on the letter corresponding to the ZIP code and then sort the letter into one of 277 bins. And 403 more OCRs and 452 BCSs are on order. ZIP + 4. Postal management predicts that use of the still-unpopular nine-digit ZIP code will hit 90 percent levels by the end of this decade. Critics say, however, that management has not pushed the program hard enough.

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Also muddying the waters: a report by the US Office of Technology Assessment saying that ``multiline'' OCRs -- which read the entire address, compare it with addresses in its memory, and determine the nine-digit ZIP -- work as well as the current generation of ``single line'' OCRs, which read only the ZIP. The Postal Service is looking into multiline conversion kits for its current OCRs -- which could eliminate the need for the entire ZIP + 4 program. Facilities. Plans are afoot for increased sale of airspace rights above old downtown post offices, construction of new computer-designed buildings, and more storefront operations to help customers avoid long lines at central post offices.

Also coming: changes in lobby design to incorporate more do-it-yourself equipment for buying stamps, weighing packages, and determining ZIP codes. Already on order: 11,220 free-standing electronic lobby units (at $7,000 apiece), each consisting of two stamp-vending machines and a changemaker. Delivery. However much automation comes, the fact remains that processing the mail accounts for less than 30 percent of the USPS budget. Delivery accounts for 39 percent -- and cannot readily be automated. ``What you won't see in 25 years is six-day mail delivery to the door and to the curb,'' says consultant Michael Cavanagh. ``Your mailbox is probably going to be the local shopping center.''

Postal governor Peter Voss disagrees. ``I think we'll always have home delivery,'' he says. And while some observers speculate about three-day-only delivery, he dismisses the notion out of hand: ``Whoever's foisting that off on the American public,'' he says, ``is buying the wrong kind of stuff on the street.'' Governor Ruth O. Peters, agreeing, suggests that increasing mail volume may even require two mail deliveries a day. Electronic mail. As a carrier of written messages, electronic mail is still in its infancy. At present, computerized message systems are now used primarily within corporations. Such companies as MCI Communications and Western Union, offering computer mailbox facilities to the public, have yet to see them turn a profit. Even with increased popularity, however, such electronic message systems are probably more threatening to telephone systems than to the Postal Service and other har d-copy businesses.

Of greater concern to the USPS -- since 94 percent of all first-class mail concerns financial transactions -- are the electronic funds transfer systems (EFTS). Such systems, also in their infancy, link home or business computers with banks and allow bills to be paid electronically. Officially, the Postal Service is not worried. ``New media have tended to increase . . . the number of messages rather than displace existing media,'' says the latest USPS ``Strategic Business Plan,'' adding that ``the teleph one did not replace the telegraph or mail service. . . .''

But should EFTS suddenly take off, says Postal Rate Commission chairman Janet D. Steiger, ``about 25 percent of first-class mail could divert rapidly to electronic transfer.'' That could put a fatal crimp in the USPS budget. ``If and when this technology begins to happen,'' says Mr. Cavanagh, ``it will be eating away at the very heart of the Postal Service's revenues.''

One decision, however, has been clearly taken: The USPS is getting itself out of the electronic mail business. Its E-COM service (standing for electronic computer-originated mail) will terminate Sept. 3, ending a three-year experiment and setting the Postal Service squarely back into the hard-copy business.

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