I just finished reading an article detailing an idea for modernizing the US Postal System and I have some thoughts that I'd like to share. Before I begin, I'd like to take a moment to explain why the following critique is so important to me. The long and short of it is that as a software developer, my career essentially consists of solving problems. Software is just the tool I tend to rely upon for getting the job done. Throughout the course of my career I've run into many people who were terrible problem solvers and the people who birthed the idea I'm about to shred exhibit all of the qualifications necessary to join that particular group.
The basic premise of the idea is that sending snail mail is too hard. That's right, you heard me: too hard. You need an address and postage stamps and that's essentially too much to ask. In an effort to solve this problem the hipsters in question have created a system called Signet that requires the following:
(1) Every user must have a "device that uses a laser to etch it with your name and a unique identifying pattern", the result of which will act as the stamp.
(2) The delivery organization must create and maintain an extensive database of all available recipients that can be used for delivery so that the sender doesn't need to know the address of the receiver.
(3) A ubiquitous app that can facilitate real time communication between the delivery service, the sender and the receiver.
So what are the gains here? Well instead of needing a stamp and an address, now all I would require is the device that etches my signet. Okay so no more last minute trips to the grocery store or post office to pick up stamps. That's nice I suppose. Apparently I don't need to know the recipient's address either. On the surface that appears quite convenient.
The only problem is that it is not. Names are not unique. Addresses on the other hand are. Much like an email address, a street address allows us to essentially pinpoint the destination for a parcel with very little information. This system is amazingly effective when it comes right down to it. By forcing delivery to rely upon knowing the recipients name, you create a number of new problems that the new system appears to completely ignore:
(a) The app allows the user to designate the recipient after the delivery organization receives the parcel. This is convenient for the user but increases the burden on the delivery organization. It also increases the possibility of a parcel being delivered to the wrong person. If I have a friend named John Smith, how easy is it going to be for me to use an application on my phone to decide which John Smith should be receiving my parcel? Oh if this particular John Smith is on my contacts list, the problem is solved. But what if he's not? What if I run an online store front and I need to deliver a purchase to a customer? How do I identify the correct John Smith? Now this may sound like nit-picking but this portion of the idea represents its greatest failure because it's ignoring the reality of implementation. Not only does the delivery organization have to maintain a comprehensive list of recipients, but it also has to effectively make that information available to any patron of their services. Consider the consequences of that for just a minute. There are a lot of people that I would like to keep my address from and this system would by it's very nature reveal that address to anybody who wants the information. That's hardly an improvement over the current system.
(b) The app allows the process of delivery to begin without all of the required information being made available. Yes this makes it more convenient for the absent minded among us who cannot be bothered to look up somebody's address and write it on the envelope, but it creates a new and very real problem for the delivery organization. What are they going to do with all of these parcels that are missing pertinent information? Do you have any idea how many parcels an organization like the US Postal Services handles each and every day? This portion of the new process creates a massive new problem in the form of local Post Offices requiring temporary, secure and easily accessible forms of storage in order to compensate for their customers inability (now apparently a requirement) to provide all of the required information up front.
(c) The app requires that anybody wishing to send out a parcel use a special device that can etch their unique signet into an envelope. Call me crazy, but that device sounds like it's going to be expensive. On top of which, it sounds like allowing users to incorporate their own customization into the signet will serve as a breeding ground for other problems. For starters, where do I customize my signet? Presumably within the aforementioned app. How does that information end up in my etching device? Presumably it can sync with the delivery organizations online system somehow. Does that mean my etching device plugs into a computer/phone? Can it connect to a wireless network for this? Just how complex is this particular device?
The bottom line here is that while this idea sounds wonderful from a technology standpoint, it doesn't actually improve the existing process at all. For all the flak they take, the US Postal Service is actually exceedingly efficient when it comes right down to it. This process would only serve to lower that level of efficiency and raise the prices of their service all for the sole purpose of allowing the lazy to procrastinate and wait until the last possible moment to decide who they want to send a particular parcel to.
Is that really an improvement? I think not.