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 October 31, 2000      TIPS to search 200 million Web pages fast!

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Letter writing: The '90s.
You write one. Put it an envelope. Trudge to the post office, stick a stamp and post it. It's a day late already.
It is collected, taken to the nearest office and sorted according to district or city. Add another day.
The news is stale by a couple of days, which is the time taken to reach its destination by train.
Sorted yet again, the postman finally delivers it at the doorstep.

Letter writing: The year 2000.
You write one.
Email it to the remotest village in the country with a post office.
It is printed on paper and delivered to the addressee.
Time taken: Less than 24 hours.

If the pilot of the Pune Postal Department is a successful one, then this is what you can expect in the near future. It is scheduled to be tested in Pune, Ahmednagar, Solapur and Satara within six months, since post offices in these districts are computerised.

The concept is simple. Log on to the Indian postal service website (http://indianpostoffice.net - yet to be operational). Open an account, obtain an email ID, and start mailing. Messages are sent to the nearest wired post office where they are printed and delivered to the receiver's doorstep. All the sender needs to have is a geographical or email address.

The idea is far from original; the Indian Postal Department has only just woken up to its potential. Bharat Mail has been doing something similar since July 1998. Log on and email a letter which is then printed and posted to any destination in India.

However, BharatMail offers some value additions to its service. Users can receive scanned imprints of handwritten


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Click for a tour of Multilingual Email sites

letters through the ScanMail feature. It has also introduced multilingual email and voice mail facilities (all of these essentially aimed at cutting through language barriers). Catering to NRIs spread over 140 countries, the site has notched up one lakh users in the US, and three lakh in India, with a person in the Antarctica listed too.

"The site was conceptualised because there is a whole generation of senior citizens that is not going to get used to the Net. Besides, the registered user on our site is usually the son or grandchild who uses this facility to keep in touch with parents and grandparents who are not net users. This number is increasing by leaps and bounds," points out Sunder P, Managing Director, Bharat Mail. "We provide a clean interface and use the infrastructure of the Indian Postal service to post close to 2,000 mails a day." While this service currently does not generate any revenue, it does drive traffic to its other revenue-generating channels. Sunder does not perceive a threat from Indian Postal Service to his site. "Even the US Postal Service has been thinking about the same thing but has been unable to implement it. It will take a long while for the Indian Postal service to get its act together. Besides, there will be a surcharge to it, which is where we dotcoms beat them hands down!"

Dakwala , which set up operations in November 1999, is a similar enterprise. "It was set-up to provide a media face to our corporate website -Business OnlineIndia. It is not a revenue stream for us but purely a way to earn goodwill. and hence, we are not competing with the Indian post." explains Suresh Nayyar, CEO, Business Online

"Initially the service was open to Indians as well, but the mail we received was unmanageable. Now we are open only to mails from outside India. The number is therefore considerably lesser, around 150 mails daily," says Suresh. They have four people working exclusively on processing the mail, which is posted twice a day using the Indian Postal service. "The revenue we currently generate is enough to sustain the operating cost of the site. However, we intend to sell space on the printed letters, besides banners on our site," he adds.

Each site has its own niche and clientele. Dear India (http://www.dearindia.com) gets a lot of mail from the Gulf, but is planning to try and grab the market in Russia. "Word of mouth and advertisements in Indian papers abroad have helped generate traffic for us. That's where the main cost of the site is incurred," explains CEO, K Joseph, who runs this operation at home along with his wife and an assistant. Currently receiving 600 odd mails a day, their revenue is from printed ads on the envelope and writing paper. "The response is quite good; enough to sustain operations and make a marginal profit too," says Joesph.

For the users, it is a boon. Explains Chennai-based Mallika Srinivsan, who uses Bharatmail's Scan mail and snail mail to communicate with her landlord's son in the US , "It is easier to explain complicated matters of property and bill payments in a letter than spend huge amounts of money on telephone calls." Privacy is an issue but she trusts Bharatmail not to violate the policy. "What I like about their service is they are courteous, prompt and very patient!" Right now smitten by voice mail, Srinivasan also seems open to using this service if offered by the Indian Postal Service…

Muddasir Qazi stationed in the UAE also seems very enthusiastic about the efforts of the Postal department, saying that he would definitely give it a shot! "It is an essential service which has been well provided by Bharatmail and it has made communicating home easier and more frequent. It's not a chore anymore to post letters and besides, it is a free service! My brothers, sister and brother-in-law also communicate using the same service and find it very efficient and reliable!"

As for Colonel Sadasivam, Post Master at Pune, he refuses to think of the Internet as a threat to sales or future plans. "It would be a threat to us if we refused to change. But we have." Capitalising on the core competence of the Indian Post - the post offices within reach and door delivery, Sadasivam is using the benefit of speed offered by emails to his advantage. "Today, the Internet and email account facility are limited only to those who have the internet connectivity or telephones. Both these groups account for less than five per cent of the population. So the internet is not a threat to us, instead it is an opportunity to extend our services wider."

Currently, eight lakh mails are handled daily by 700 post offices in the Pune region. "For the pilot project, we are hoping to connect 500 odd mail stations. Besides, efficiency would improve as instead of two centers of sorting out mail physically, there will now be only place where this mail would need to be manually sorted."

The challenges facing the department are many. "To plan a foolproof network, identify suitable software packages, train a taskforce... But none of them are insurmountable," says Col Sadasivam confidently, adding, "Technology has always been assimilated in our department quietly. We will do so again." The staff seems very enthusiastic to start the venture and deal with technology," asserts the postmaster.

The target audience has not been segmented according to age or income brackets. "This universal service would have two main beneficiaries. People who would want to send a large number of letters to different addresses and if either the sender or receiver has never been exposed to the Net," explains Col Sadasivam.

The revenue generation issues also seem clouded. "We have already identified the revenue generation streams and details are being worked out," says the Colonel. Roughly, 500 mails per day in major centres would mean a break-even while 100 mails per day would suffice for smaller centres. Also, there seems to be no ad spend allocated for this project with word of mouth being their only trumpeting factor.

What might hamper this dream is the lack of connectivity to an ISP. But Col Sadasivam plans to start talks with major regional ISP players, and intends to add an e-commerce accent to this venture in the near future. "The dream is to see 20,000 of the 26,000 major post offices linked as inlets to serve the public."

Let's hope, this remains no pipe dream.