Monday, April 4, 2011

The Sudden Death of MAIL

Mail will disappear like vinyl Records did - suddenly.  And it is happening NOW.

You may remember, if you are above a certain age, the day you went to a record store and all the vinyl records were gone.  They were there last week and then BAM! they were gone.  Everything was on CD now, and there was no turning back.  The market for music reached a tipping point, and suddenly it no longer made sense to stock music in CD, LP and cassette (remember THOSE?).  And so, Vinyl LPs disappeared.

Now, if you are below a certain age, you will say, "What's a record store?  Is there a URL for that site?"

And they would have a good point, as CDs have gone the way of Vinyl - replaced by online music.  And DVDs and Blu-Ray discs will follow, as night follows day.

Now, let me get out of the way one piece of housekeeping.  Some idiot will no doubt say, "Well, Vinyl isn't dead!  In fact it's making a comeback!  And some audiophiles say it sounds better than CDs and online music!"

This may take me a few minutes while I bludgeon to death that idiot with this 2 x 4.  But it is all for the best.  People who make annoying and silly (and stupid) comments like that really are distracting, as they miss the main point of any topic, discussion, or argument, by bringing up trivial irrelevancies.  Yes, tiny niche markets exist for almost anything.  But despite baiting articles in the press, they are hardly "trends" of anything.  Yes, the Amish drive buggies to the store.  That doesn't mean the auto is on the way out - to be replaced by horses, mass-transit, or "eco-pods" or whatever.

Vinyl is dead, and so are CDs, and what is important to observe here is how quickly they went away, once a certain installed base of equipment was in place and social norms changed.  Overnight they disappeared.  Unlike, say, 8-tracks or Cassettes, they did not "fade out" over a number of years, but instead died quickly.

And other forms of data transmittal will follow suit.  Books will be revolutionized by e-readers - when, it is not clear, but soon, very soon, I think.  And how this affect libraries and the like will be interesting.

But the U.S. Mail is another example of data transmission where electronic transmission makes so much more sense.  In the early days of e-mail, all you could send was text, and that was a pretty poor substitute.  And "signed documents" were required for most legal matters.

Today, however, you can send very detailed documents with embedded text and even audio and video, with the click of  a mouse.  And it is faster and more reliable and a lot, lot cheaper than having people walk around every neighborhood in the USA every day, dropping off pieces of paper.

Now, don't get me wrong - I am not "anti" U.S. Postal Service.  They do a great job and have been very reliable.  And their Priority Mail package service is the best for sending small packages quickly, efficiently, and cheaply.  And I suspect, moving forward, that package delivery will be a big part of their business, as mail drops off.

Recently, I decided to move to the Island full-time, and there was a mixup in my mail.  But it was short-lived and moreover, I found that the mail was not really all that important to me anymore.  Most of my communications were by e-mail, and the few things I was getting by mail, such as a utility bill, I could have set up to receive by e-mail (so I did).

I filed my taxes online for the last three years.  I get my refund check as an EFT deposit to my bank account.  The need for "mail" is sort of obsolete these days - or can be.

Magazines are increasingly going online to websites or to online readers.  The need to physically "send" a magazine by mail will diminish quickly - and suddenly - in the next few years.

Increasingly, I find that I go to the mailbox and find NO MAIL AT ALL for a day - sometimes 2-3 days a week.   Or if I do get mail, I throw most, if not all of it away, as it is "junk mail" - offers and come-ons and advertising sheets, none of which are selling a good bargain.

The interruption in my mail prompted me to take the few remaining items in my life that are NOT e-mailed to me, and set them up for e-mailing.  And things like bank statements, investment account statements, etc. are all better received online.  And since sending these things online lowers the cost for the bank or other agency, often I get a rebate or at the very least, it keeps their costs lower, meaning my costs will be lower.

Like with the Vinyl Record example, there will be a few people out there, mostly old people (who die off with regularity) saying "well, I just like to hold a piece of paper in my hands!".  And I suspect they say this because they have an older computer with a tiny, single display, and a slow Internet connection, so they view the Internet as hard to use and unreliable.

But, I think moving forward, the remaining people who want things by paper will taper off - dramatically.  It is like people who want to pay by check, rather than using online bill pay, thinking it is "safer" - when in fact, it is far more dangerous.  Paying online saves 44 cents postage, pays a bill on the day it is due, and eliminates the possibility of lost mail or stolen checks.  And a check is just a request for an electronic transfer, anyway.

So now, getting rid of the mail has become an obsession of mine.  I like to travel, and it is nice to be able to go away without having to worry about missing a bill payment.

The only place I have trouble eliminating mail is in getting paid.  People like to say "the check is in the mail" and as a result, I don't get paid for days and weeks.  Without the mail, they don't have this excuse to not pay me.

Taking credit cards and PayPal is one answer, of course, but they charge fees to me, and thus I end up getting nicked for 2% of each purchase.  But it is more reliable and easier to use than the U.S. Mails.

My prediction is that by 2015, the U.S. Mail will be radically different.  Saturday delivery will be gone in a year or so, and perhaps 4-day-a-week delivery (or less) may be the norm.  Or mail may be delivered like packages - where you will have so little mail that the carrier will only come to your door on the days when you have mail.  And I suspect much of the volume of the U.S. Mail will be packages by then.

The U.S. Mail won't go away - it has a Constitutional mandate after all, and is the communications system of record for any legal or governmental communication.  But for the rest of the volume of mail out there, it no longer is the "go to" place anymore.  And that volume of mail will drop off dramatically and suddenly in the next few years.

And like the CD or the Vinyl Record, you will wake up one day and say "Gee, what ever happened to the U.S. Mail?"