IF there is one institution that would seem to be threatened by the information superhighway, it’s the United States Postal Service. The world of E-mail, Web pages and software downloads seems to offer everything the old paper-based world of information delivers but offers it almost instantaneously. Many have been wondering whether something known colloquially as snail mail can compete.
The answer is that it won’t compete directly, but it will keep applying the same kind of computer power that underlies E-mail and other electronic wizardry to the task of moving paper mail. The fact is that new technology rarely destroys the old. It usually melds with the old, allowing both to do what they do best.
Last year, letter carriers delivered 630 million pieces of mail a day. The post office now uses computerized sorting machines to route most of the mail. Most bulk mail, like bills, is printed with bar codes that are representations of ZIP codes and easy for computers to understand. The machines direct the path of a letter with house-level precision. Mail with bar codes goes directly to machines that can read the codes. Mail without bar codes but with printed addresses is handled by large mail-sorting machines with built-in cameras for taking pictures of addresses. A computer interprets the images, finds the best matching addresses and directs a printer to mark bar codes on the envelopes to speed further sorting. Today, the post office is concentrating on building even more sophisticated computer systems, with advanced optical character recognition (O.C.R.) technology, that will read handwritten envelopes. Bill Dowling, a vice president for engineering at the Postal Service, said, Our on-line O.C.R. machines handle 40,000 envelopes an hour and 80 percent of machine-printed mail we read.