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Signed, sealed, stamped - via computer

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By the end of the year, the post office willing, it may be possible to log into a Web site, buy postage and then have any laser printer run it out on envelopes along with an address.

At least two companies, postage meter behemoth Pitney Bowes, and tiny E-Stamp, are poised to do battle for the market as soon the U.S. Postal Service authorizes the plan.Even with the growth of electronic mail, the companies are betting there will be a future for electronic stamps for sending letters and packages that can't wind their way through the Internet.

In the E-Stamp Corp. vision of the future, putting postage on a letter would be as easy a printing it out. The company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., has developed a small adaptor about half the size of a pack of cigarettes that plugs into a computer's printer port at one end and the printer at the other.

Users will be able to go to the E-Stamp Web site and, using secret codes, buy postage with a credit card. The amount would be downloaded onto their computer.

The E-Stamp software would integrate with the user's word-processing and printer programs so that with a simple click on a menu, a bar code would be printed on the upper right hand corner of an envelope - after giving the computer a secret number so that no one can "borrow" stamps from your PC.

Not only would it be a legal stamp, it would include information such as the date and time the letter was stamped, as well as the destination ZIP code. It's designed to be read by post office mail sorting machines to speed delivery.

The stamp looks something like the bar codes now used on grocery items, but instead of a block of single lines, each line consists of a series of thick and thin squares. The overall effect is something like a tiny pointilist painting in black and white.

E-Stamp has also patented a two-window envelope, which would allow users to print a stamp directly on a letter itself. Fold it in thirds and the address shows through one window, the stamp through another.

"This means you don't have to run your envelope through the printer," said president Sunir Kapoor.

With Pitney Bowes' solid hold on the mass-mailing market, E-Stamp plans on going after home office workers who don't need a postage meter but also don't want to run to the post office for stamps. E-Stamp estimates the printer adaptor and software to run it would cost under $300.

E-Stamp has filed its proposal, a revision of an earlier one, with the U.S. Postal Service and is waiting for a reply. Kapoor is hoping for an answer soon enough to begin test-marketing the service in the fourth quarter of 1997.