Bill Gates latest alliance is not with some hi-tech outfit in Silicon Valley, but with the world's oldest postal service, the Royal Mail. MSN and the Royal Mail will offer an email to post service to allow visitors to the RelayOne Web site to send email to people who do not have an email account (either permanently or temporarily) anywhere in the world, which will be delivered in printed form.
The partners believe the service will appeal to all kinds of people, from families to businesses of all sizes. Superficially the service sounds appealing. Despite the enormous uptake of email, we can all list several of our friends and family who are not yet ready to receive electronic epistles. Then there are the countless occasions when it would be useful to be able to get a written message to someone, or to some organisation, quickly and easily from your desktop. In many ways the RelayOne service is a modern version of the much-lamented telegram service - a service that lived on long after it had been rendered obsolete by telephone and fax. This survival can be put down to one thing - the power of paper.
A written physical record to mark an occasion, seal a contract, confirm a deal, make a proposal, issue a writ, call for help, say thanks - all of these communications are just nicer if they arrive in a pleasing printed form. Sure, you cannot cut and paste them into your word processor, file them in your database, or easily display them on a Web page, but this is to miss the point. The world is not ready now, or in the foreseeable future for a print free communications regime. The only surprising thing really is that it has taken so long for big concerns like the Royal Mail and Microsoft to see the potential of email to print. Of course the idea needs to be developed a bit - we need attractive cards and paper options for our printed missives, and the opportunity to incorporate photos of our loved ones, but with the world of film and photography rushing headlong into digital delivery this is sure to follow.
So who wins and who gains in the new alliance. Alas, it looks like being the man from Seattle once again. As far as the UK is concerned he gains association with one of most respected public services, which carries with it the endorsement of the royal family. I have no figures, but my guess would be that awareness of the Royal Mail is probably close to 100% in the UK, whilst without putting too fine a point on it, awareness of MSN must be considerably less. So why did the Royal Mail need Microsoft? As the most technologically advanced postal service in the world the Royal Mail could have rolled this out themselves. They have a network of post offices to sell it and offer terminals for people both to test and enhance the service, and most importantly of all, they have the ideal brand name to make what marketing folks would describe as a textbook 'vertical marketing' move from paper letters to electronic letters.
What are the government thinking of in letting Microsoft get a foothold in our postal service? If the Royal Mail absolutely had to have an alliance to make this work-and I don't believe they did-then why not with a British company, such as BT, Demon, or Virgin? Our postal service is one ancient institution that Cool Britannia can be justifiably proud of. It is just a shame that our cool new government appears to be willing to let the PM's chum, Bill Gates, buy into it for a song. Altogether now, 'Postman Bill, Postman Bill, Postman Bill, and his green and white stash of cash'.