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US Postal Service's bold foray into email, 30 years ago

Three decades ago, the US Postal Service began prepping for the demise of written correspondence, and sought an electronic, albeit clunky, alternative.

The US Postal Service -- and all other national postal services throughout the world -- are often viewed as dinosaurs in today's electronic, socially networked society. Postal mail is derisively called "snail mail."

Three decades ago at this time, however, the US Postal Service was looking far forward, launching a bold project for advancing communications into the information age: an email system that would help companies to communicate with each other electronically -- well, at least part of the way. The quasi-government corporation foresaw the eventual decline of handwritten correspondence, and wanted to be first to market with a new mode of communication.

It wasn't quite as fast as email as we know it today. A company would generate a message over a computer linked to the Postal Service's E-COM network. (E-COM stood for Electronic Computer Originated Mail.) The message wouldn't go directly to the recipient, but rather to a post office close to the recipient's location. It would be printed out, and sent out via regular mail, which presumably would be a lot faster than sending the document from another part of the country. Considering the fact that email didn't exist in 1982, it was quite revolutionary, and even potentially disruptive to the Postal Service's own business model.

A very comprehensive overview of the story of E-COM, along with original Post Office documents, can be found here. The service was launched in early 1982, but had mixed results. In its first year, E-COM had 116 customers, but sent seven million messages. Ultimately, the service was not seen as profitable, and was shut down in September 1985.

The Postal Service faced political headwinds as well. The Reagan Administration was philosophically opposed to government ventures in the private sector. In fact, the Department of Justice sued to try to stop the service before it even commenced.

Had it survived, E-COM would likely have been overwhelmed and outdated by the Internet and email service by the early 1990s. As many a tech vendor has learned, technology changes faster than most business plans can keep up. Nevertheless, it represented a flash of bold, innovative thinking that all organizations -- public and private -- need to have in order to keep reinventing themselves.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com