The Royal Mail has teamed up with the Microsoft Network (MSN) to deliver an email to real mail solution in what many perceive as a desperate attempt by the postal service to protect itself from the advent of electronic correspondence.
The service offered is straightforward: send an email to someone who doesn't have access to an email account and the Royal Mail will intercept it at its Electronic Service Centre and deliver it for you - anywhere in the world. Dubbed, RelayOne, users can access the service by logging onto the RelayOne web site.
Once registered, users can send electronically initiated 'snail mails' all over the world by submitting their credit card details and hitting the send button. Oliver Role, MSN's marketing director, believes RelayOne will appeal to anyone who is in touch with people who, either permanently or temporarily, do not have email. "If you're working for a high tech company in Watford and you want to send a mail to a relative in the Hebrides - who doesn't have email - this lets you do it as quickly and as simply as ordinary email," he says.
Role also sees large companies with small customers or clients benefiting from the service: "Imagine you're a big corporate and you need to send a contract over to a small client who doesn't have email. That's no longer a problem."
Role's analogy is an interesting one according to James Gardiner, marketing manager at Demon Internetwho says the launch of RelayOne is indicative of a trend that could eventually damage traditional delivery services. "There's no doubt that email is affecting the Royal Mail's revenue. Email is simple, it's fast and it's far more secure than traditional mail," he says. "If you are sending a contract and it has to be secure, you can encrypt the document with email. You don't get that with snail mail."
The Royal Mail denies any suggestion of its revenue being affected by the popularity of email. A spokeswoman told ZDNet News that far from reducing the number of letters sent, email and faxes actually increase the figure. "Our evidence suggests that people still prefer to send letters and that faxes and email encourage people to send proper letters," she says. This was disputed by the US Postal Service. "I couldn't put a figure on it," says a spokesman, "but email is definitely having a (negative) effect on our volumes."
According to Gardiner The Royal Mail has tried and failed with a similar service - Royal Mail Electronic Services - which he says has been a disappointment. "To make this work, the Royal Mail had no choice but to team up with a company like Microsoft.
The cost of sending a one-page letter e-mailed from anywhere in the world to any address in the world is £1.50. Four pages is £3.00, while a document of up to 50 pages costs £5.00 in Europe and £10.00 for the rest of the world. All payments are made by credit card.