In 1982, even before email became so popular, what used to be called "mail" began to be referred to contemptuously as "snail mail." Ouch.


It's ironic that paper mail lent its name to the analogies contained in email and voice mail, but can't promise any of the convenience, cost-cutting and accessibility that have made its younger communications brethren such universally admired killer apps.


One of the world's largest mail services companies uses the tagline, "Can you see the mailstream?" Those of us who have emigrated to mail from high-tech and the Internet think we can. And like any stream, we don't see the mailstream running the same course forever. If the stream is not to dry up, it will need to flow faster and impact the environment around it far less.


We're able to see many of the changes happening to mail. Because our customers receive their postal mail online, in the form of digital images of the envelopes on a secure website, we are uniquely able to track every detail of what they do with their mail. And because many of our customers are dedicated to combining digital technology and the Internet to cut costs, increase efficiencies and productivity and reduce their environmental footprint, we're privileged to witness, in their requests for capabilities and features, the leading edge of innovation. Where our customers are today, in other words, most big businesses will be in two years.


What is it we see coming? One trend we see is that technology is catching up to consumers' demand to dam up the overflowing stream of unwanted mail. Given technology that empowers them, online
mail recipients are telling mail centers 52% of the time, "Don't waste the time and money to hand-case, deliver and cart this away." That is, 52% of the envelopes they see online are shredded or recycled unopened, without having left the mail center. (Are you still delivering them?)


What about the mail that isn't "deleted?" The vast majority of it is still not wanted in paper form at all. The convergence of digital and Internet technologies allows recipients to get the contents of mail in paperless form: they ask for 44% of their mail to be scanned into a PDF document, which can then easily and cheaply be viewed online, forwarded, stored, replicated, printed out, faxed or retrieved. The lesson here? Stop trying to force mail recipients into unnatural methodologies that take away their powers, choices and conveniences and that increase costs. Mail's best chance for survival is to evolve and mimic the technologies to which mail lent its name.

The second trend we see, related to the first, is the empowerment of the addressee, or recipient, of postal mail. Email addressees are already empowered. They get email directly and wherever they are, and they alone decide what to do with those emails. And thanks to the cell phone, recipients of telephone calls can receive those calls directly, or access the voice mails instantly, from anywhere. If we have learned anything from the popularity of email and voice mail, it is that when people receive messages, they want them unmediated by another person, and they want to have the power to say what happens next.


But most enterprise mail recipients have their mail filtered through a mail center, which generally delivers all of the mail, despite the fact that more than half of it is unwanted. (In other cases, the attempted cure can be worse than the disease, as mail center employees decide for themselves which messages the recipient wants.) And no recipient of postal mail can ever access her mail from any remote location, such as on the road, on vacation or from home. To add insult to injury, in so-called "digital mail" applications, the mail center opens all employee mail without individualized authorization.


Postal mail recipients want more power and choice than mail centers give them today, and they want 24/7 accessibility. One might well ask: power and choice over, and universal access to, postal mail? How on earth? The answer of the innovators is the same in both cases: by combining digital imaging with the Internet, they are able to show employees images of the incoming envelopes online and to empower those employees to manage their mail unfiltered by third parties and allow them to signal their mail-handling preferences to the mail center from afar.


The combination of digitized mail and the Internet also enables a third business trend, that of trading in high real estate, construction and related costs for more versatile and inexpensive flex centers, in a practice also known as "hoteling." Many enterprises realize that if an office building is fully occupied only 30% of the time, with the absent employees on the road or working from home, that office building can be traded in for one about 60% as large. But once they secure a smaller building, they have a new challenge: Where do employees work when they're in the office?


Thanks to state-of-the-art technologies, they treat the office like a hotel, checking in to non-permanent workstations for temporary stays. They plug into Internet-enabled phone service, log on to Internet-enabled email, and they are fully equipped for productive work. In this way, IBM saved more than $100 million last year alone. Sun Microsystems has saved between $300 and 500 million over the last five years, along with 30 metric tons of carbon emissions not vented into the atmosphere during commuting.


Until recently, there were just two problems. First, how do you get paper mail to employees moving about as if in musical chairs? The innovators have arrived at the same answer: For mail, too, you use the original, the only, distributed network: the Internet. It will follow you to any desk, to a distant hotel in a far-off land and back home to your home office. Second, if employees don't have permanent desks, what do they do with the paper they bring back from the field? The answer is ingenious: they "mail" the documents to their online accounts, and then they're able to instruct the mail center to scan or archive them. In short, by combining digital imaging and the Internet, corporations are seeing the same cost-cutting and productivity gains they saw with email and the cell phone.


Cameron Powell is Vice President of Business Development of Earth Class Mail, which delivers online postal mail ( He writes and speaks regularly on how companies can use Internet-based software to interface with mail processing systems in order to image and barcode envelopes and either upload their images to the Internet to await disposition by recipients (Discretionary Mail) or instantly process accounting, claims and other Automatic Rules Mail.