Your personal computer may soon double as your personal postage meter.
The U.S. Postal Service Monday gave the green light to two California companies to begin marketing postage via the Internet.
The Postal Service is especially targeting small business people, reports CBS News Correspondent Barry Bagnato, thinking they no longer have the time to troop down to the Post Office to buy stamps in the old-fashioned way.
The USPS calls it "PC Postage" and said in a statement it "is an innovative new way for postal customers to purchase and print postage through their personal computers and the Internet. One or more products will become available to the public this summer."
The move marks the first time in 80 years that the federal agency has allowed a company to offer a new form of postage to customers.
"The Postal Service, historically, has been a pioneer in helping the nation build its information highway," said Postmaster General William J. Henderson.
"We were there in the 18th century to encourage the building of post roads to bind the nation together through mail delivery. In the mid-19th century, we encouraged the building of railroads to further support universal service. In the early 20th century, we encouraged development of a highway in the sky for airmail. Today as the world approaches the new millennium, PC Postage further increases universal access to postage," said Henderson.
Using the Stamps.com service, customers can log onto the company's Web site and print stamps with an ordinary laser or ink jet printer, requiring no hardware. The company said it will cost about ten percent more than typical postage.
The Santa Monica-based company said it will start offering the service as a test to consumers in Washington, D.C., Hawaii and California. After 12 months of testing, it will begin distribution nationally.
Former Postmaster General Marvin Runyon, who resigned from the U.S. Postal Service last year, now is on the board of directors of Stamps.com, raising some eyebrows about conflicts of interest.
San Mateo-based E-Stamp said online postage is available to consumers immediately. Its service requires software and a small device about the size of a roll of stamps that connects to a personal computer.
Once connected to E-Stamp's Web site, consumers can buy postage using a credit card and download up to $500 of postage. Using the hardware, customers do not have to stay logged onto the Web site to print stamps.
Other companies have offered postage services meant to cut th trips that businesses and consumers make to post offices. Pitney Bowes, for example, offers postage by phone for businesses.
"Life just became a little bit easier for those who mail," said Pam Gibert, Postal Service Vice President of Retail. "With PC Postage you can purchase and print postage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from the convenience of your home or office."