This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Mailing Systems Technology.

Online postage was born in the dotcom age, nearly two decades ago. In the summer of 1999, no fewer than four companies launched their offerings within days of each other. Today, there are only two companies with online postage offerings. An interesting footnote: one of these startups was actually the first of the many companies that went public during that time without reporting any revenue!

While the initial online postage offerings garnered significant capital investment and headlines, the performance was rudimentary. You could print postage on envelopes, but not on labels. Systems required special hardware, such as a dongle, and each customer needed to be approved by the United States Postal Service (USPS). So with these limited capabilities and USPS constraints, online postage at the end of the day simply wasn’t that usable, in spite of all the enthusiasm and excitement for it on Wall Street. Not surprisingly, following the dotcom bust, some of the competitors disappeared. Since then, however, a lot has changed.

First of all, we’ve all gotten used to conducting a great deal of our lives online. From shopping for all kinds of products and services, to paying for them, along with other monthly bills, to posting personal news and events on social media, to looking for a job, the online world for many of us is the familiar and often preferred place where we get things done.

Next, the speed and ease we experience online have changed our expectations for how quickly — and easily — things should happen. Finally, the mailing and shipping industry has evolved —dramatically — offering impressive online capabilities that have dialed up our expectations around tracking and delivery times. With respect to online postage, the USPS has eased its restrictions, and technology is giving users a lot more benefits than just saving them trips to the post office.

Way Beyond Stamps

Today, online postage solutions go far beyond printing postage, shipping labels and addresses. Thanks to the latest easy-to-use cloud-based solutions, online users can access comprehensive systems that let them do a better job of managing all their mailing and shipping activities across multiple carriers. These systems will print postage and shipping labels for USPS and other major carriers, as well as offer flexible postage payment options. The solutions also make it easy for users to qualify for discount programs from USPS and private carriers, and allow them to look at all carrier options on one integrated platform.

For businesses sending packages internationally, online postage solutions now make it easier than ever before to produce complete customs forms and determine landed costs. In many ways, online postage has become a gateway for small and medium businesses to international commerce.

In addition, since these systems reside in the cloud, they can be offered as a software as a service (SaaS) model. As businesses look for more cost-effective ways to operate, they’re attracted to SaaS solutions. In this approach, all applications and databases reside in the cloud. As a result, a business does not need additional IT assets on premises — the SaaS solution provider takes care of it all. Organizations do not need experts to install and service systems, nor do they need an IT staff to maintain and upgrade them. A SaaS-based mailing and shipping solution is always up-to-date, providing users with all the latest features.

The SaaS approach means you pay only for the services you use, at the time you use them. It also lets you access applications and data from anywhere, meaning you can run solutions from the desktop, integrate them into postage meters, and access them remotely on a smartphone or heavy-duty handheld device in a wireless environment. Individual users can mail, overnight, and ship parcels from their computers, tablets, or mobile devices using their choice of major carriers.

This new cloud-based technology means that businesses of all sizes can now access multiple shipping options, accurately weigh packages, and print postage and labels from a single easy-to-use online application. Other benefits include the ability to:

· mail now and pay later, to better manage cash flow and streamline postal accounting;

· compare carrier choices, tracking, and consolidated reporting;

· select the best carrier option for each item, based on service level and price.

These capabilities can now be offered to small and medium businesses, providing them with the same technology that’s been used for years by large online retailers and shipping companies.

And How About That Tracking?

Not too long ago, mail and package tracking was reserved for special situations, such as certified mail, registered mail, and overnight deliveries. Nothing happened in real time, as carriers would email spreadsheets and manifests only at the end of the day. But now all that has changed. New technologies permit us to track everything in real time. Carriers can do demand planning and route items for quicker delivery. We now track billions of events around the country, and some systems can even tell you the street a mail piece or package is currently on.

Having the ability to access where every package is, all the time, all over the country, has changed our attitudes as recipients. We now expect to be able to track everything that’s coming to us. Large operations, such as Amazon and eBay, are built on business models that depend on fast shipping and tracking. And now small and medium businesses can offer the same benefits, with the ability to access all the services and capabilities of all the major carriers.

Today’s cloud-based online solutions also work seamlessly with a range of hardware options —such as postage meters, scales, and printers — with the user selecting only the hardware they need. Connecting this hardware to a SaaS solution turns these devices into online appliances. Everyday mailing machines such as postage meters have become smart sending devices, putting the latest technology into everyone’s hands. The fact is, never have more people had more access to more mail and shipping capabilities. And they can access those capabilities via the cloud from anywhere, on any connected device, for both sending and monitoring.

Thanks to all this technology, today’s online postage solutions are also about big data, emanating from meters and other devices in the workflow. This big data is being used by USPS and private carriers to improve service, as well as by users to improve shipping performance and to lower costs. Cloud-based systems are providing businesses access to solutions, analytics, and APIs across the full business continuum. And they’re doing it with speed and agility, to help businesses identify customers, locate opportunities, enable communications, power ship from anywhere to everywhere, and manage payments more efficiently.

When online postage was launched at the end of the last century, the concepts were raw and the commercial capabilities simply weren’t there. Until recently, online postage did not have much of a place in the business mailer’s arsenal. But today it certainly does.

Chris Giles is Vice President, Global Product Management, SendPro Solutions at Pitney Bowes.