USPS will post customer info

USPS will post customer info

Agency will make information available in as many formats as possible

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

The Postal Service does more than sell stamps and deliver mail. Post offices provide about five dozen services, from selling burial flags to hosting vending machines, but not all offices provide all services.


Tensor Information Systems converted a USPS Web application to the Wireless Application Protocol to make it accessible by cell phone.


As part of its Corporate Call Management program, the Postal Service is developing a Web application so that users can find the nearest post office selling, say, duck stamps or phone cards. Posting the information could take some pressure off the national call center the Postal Service is setting up to answer customer questions.

'We picked a technology that lets us offer as many options as possible,' corporate call management program head Bob Winckelmann said of the Web application.

A prototype, developed in part by Tensor Information Systems Inc. of Dallas, is running at servloc.usps.gov. It can find the nearest mailbox, the nearest post office offering a specific service or the post office that delivers mail to a certain address.

The bare-bones prototype has no graphics, and not all of its features are working yet, such as driving directions and maps. But the Postal Service plans eventually to put the locator on its Web site, at www.usps.com.

Tensor also has tried porting it for devices that run the Wireless Application Protocol, the emerging standard for online data accessible to portable devices, primarily cellular phones.

'We approached the Postal Service' about using the service locator with WAP, Tensor chief operating officer Fred Fleury said.

Winckelmann approved a technical demonstration, and within two weeks Tensor's site at, www.tensor.com had a WAP version of the service locator running.

'It shows potential,' Winckelmann said. 'The demo seems to be a good use of the technology.'

The Postal Service has no plans yet for a wireless application, but Tensor officials said it was fairly easy to port the graphical interface designed for a PC monitor into a text interface for a phone's small screen.

WAP lets application developers bypass the clipping services that now serve the wireless market, Fleury said. The third-party clipping services strip graphics off Web pages and format their text for wireless subscribers' screens.

'We see WAP as a better way of controlling how the content is displayed,' Fleury said.

WAP, introduced in 1997 as a wireless counterpart of TCP/IP, uses the Wireless Markup Language rather than Hypertext Markup Language. It has been slower to catch on in the United States than in Europe and Japan, said Dave Coyle, Tensor's regional manager for software development in Raleigh, N.C.

'The U.S. is playing catch-up,' Coyle said, because it does not have a standard digital signal for wireless data communications. Also, he said, few companies offer the service over a wide area, and not many devices are WAP-enabled.

But the number of WAP-capable cell phones is increasing. Fleury said that within a year most new phones will be compatible. He said it probably would take another four years to develop high-bandwidth handheld devices.

'Until then we see [WAP] as a way of extending current Web sites,' Fleury said. He said Tensor thought the Postal Service's service locator was likely to be useful to people away from PCs, and the company was familiar with the business logic underlying the HTML presentation layer.

One programmer using the WebObjects tool set from Apple Computer Inc. ported the application to a WML display in two weeks. Tensor built in a subset of the Postal Service database with information about post offices in New York, California and Puerto Rico.

'The challenge was deciding what information to use as wireless,' Coyle said.

The amount of data had to be cut down and made numerical wherever possible to suit a cell phone keypad. The Web application requires a user to enter a full name, address and ZIP code; the wireless version uses just the ZIP code. Navigation goes up or down through a menu of options.

The results appear simply as the name and address of a post office or mailbox. If directions are requested, they appear only as text. No maps are available.

Working it out

WAP works with other portable devices such as handheld computers running Palm OS, but Tensor developed the service locator specifically for cell phones because the company sees them as the dominant wireless platform. Eventually, Fleury said, handheld computers will merge with cell phones because 'it is easier for a phone to start acting like a PalmPilot than the other way around.'

But a wireless USPS locator version is not likely until there are more WAP-enabled devices in the hands of postal patrons.

'Wireless as yet does not have enough penetration in the market to allow us to invest money in it,' Winckelmann said.

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