October 6, 2004

New mail service relies on open source tools

Author: Tina Gasperson

Email has gained acceptance as a quick, easy way to communicate. Some have even gone as far as to say that the time-honored custom of writing letters and sending them via postal mail (or snail mail, a reference to the lack of speed some perceive from the U.S. Postal Service's delivery times) is a dying one. For those who still need it, however, a new service based on open source software makes it possible to send actual hard copy "snail mail" directly from your Web browser.

Appropriately, it's called L-Mail, or Letter Mail. Launched this week by Web design and consulting firm QiQ Ltd., the service takes your typed-in message, prints it out on paper, puts it in an envelope, and stamps it and mails it, from any of eight locations in the U.K., Australia, Canada, Spain, and the United States.

Peter Harris, managing director of QiQ, said L-Mail is based on a completely open source infrastructure, including a Linux server, a Web site built in PHP, and a database using MySQL.

"We used open source solutions to help contain the cost of the development, not only from a software perspective, but also because of the high levels of support available," Harris said. "The continual improvement of the applications we chose assist us in ongoing enhancements."

Harris said the service is beneficial because it will save users "time and money." Instead of having to drive to the post office to buy stamps, customers will simply type a message, in much the same fashion as email. Instead of having to make that incredibly long journey to the mailbox, a quick click will have the letter on its way to the mail truck and eventually to its final destination.

For a computer user, the process is straightforward. A user writes a letter at the L-Mail site using a Web browser, then proceeds to the payment screen. L-Mail then routes the letter to the printing station nearest to the intended recipient, where it is printed, placed in an envelope, and mailed with first-class postage. The customer can request that L-Mail email a copy of the letter back to him. L-Mail also sends a confirmation email once it has posted the letter.

L-Mail will clearly save time compared to international postal mail. The claim that it will save money for everyone, however, is up for debate. It depends upon where you live. The cost for mailing a three-page letter to the United States via L-Mail, regardless of where you are physically located, is 64 pence (about $1.15), while the cost of the postage if you did it yourself from the United Kingdom would be 68 pence.

Harris said that there have been some unique challenges in the way of document management and formatting, but he said QiQ has been able to take advantage of free advice from the MySQL community in order to overcome "a number of obstacles" on the way to final delivery of the system.

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